After eight exciting, though somewhat heartbreaking weeks, Duke is off to a strong start. As the saying goes, however, you’re only as good as your record, and the Blue Devils’ 5-3 mark undersells the effort and production of a football team as good as any in AP Poll consideration.
It may seem unfair to judge five wins as disappointing after several years as one of the lowest-ranked teams in the ACC. And it may seem incredulous to suggest that Duke could be considered one of the 25 best teams in the country just a year after a 3-9 season. But for the Blue Devils, two key games—losses against Georgia Tech and North Carolina—stand between a seemingly middling 5-3 team and an objectively great 7-1 squad.
Facing Georgia Tech in Week 6, Duke entered Atlanta as a -3.5 favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. The Blue Devils had just come off a surprising victory against Virginia, in which the offense scored 38 points, breaking a 13-game losing streak against ACC opponents. However, Duke’s offensive prowess was lost in the first three quarters of play against the Yellow Jackets.
After a sole field goal on five drives, Duke was down 17-3 early in the third quarter. The offense would manage a great drive that reached Georgia Tech’s eight-yard-line, but at third-and-goal, sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard threw an unlucky interception that prevented a potential touchdown or field goal to cut Georgia Tech’s lead.
It would take a punt return touchdown and a miracle last-second drive from Leonard to get the two teams to overtime at 20 apiece, but the Blue Devils ultimately fell short on their last possession to lose the game in dramatic fashion. On third-and-four, Leonard completed a pass to freshman wide receiver Sahmir Hagans that would have advanced the ball to Georgia Tech's nine-yard line, but junior wideout Jontavis Robertson was flagged for an offensive pass interference call that pushed the ball back to Georgia Tech’s 34-yard-line. One incomplete pass later, kicker Charlie Ham missed a 52-yard field goal left, and a winnable game was lost.
After facing disappointment, Duke looked to bounce back the next week against rival, North Carolina. With a capacity crowd at Wallace Wade Stadium, the Blue Devils played one of their best games of the season, but simultaneously their most frustrating. While questionable penalties may have hurt Duke against North Carolina, the team could have easily won if not for several missed opportunities, highlighted by its second-to-last offensive drive.
Up four, the Blue Devils drove the football to North Carolina’s 11-yard line with 2:32 left. Redshirt junior running back Jordan Waters gained six yards on a third-and-2, but the play was called back for an illegal shift penalty, giving Duke a harder third-and-7. It appeared to be no problem for Leonard, as he threw a seemingly magnificent touchdown pass to give Duke a 10-point lead. However, graduate offensive lineman Andre Harris received a flag for a chop block penalty, forcing Duke to deal with a third-and-22. Leonard gained five yards on the ground, giving Charlie Ham a chance to make a 43-yard field goal to increase Duke’s lead to eight. Instead, Ham missed the kick wide right, giving North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye enough time to orchestrate a game-winning touchdown.
With these missed plays and opportunities in mind, the pathway to 7-1 is easy to see. Indeed, the 6-1 Tar Heels were nationally ranked in the AP Poll after Week 7 and Week 8. Kansas, a team Duke took the distance in Week 4, was also ranked for two weeks.
The potential storyline is even easier to spot: a first-year head coach, a tremendous rushing attack and a scrappy team putting itself in the national spotlight win after win. In place of this dreamy perception of the 2022 season for the Blue Devil faithful, Duke is just at the corner of this ideal. Maybe head coach Mike Elko’s team can learn from its mistakes in the years to come and earn Duke football its first placement on the AP Poll since 2018. However, if Elko wants his championship dream realized, it’s fair to say that the Blue Devils have missed a major opportunity midway through his first season.
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