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In Duke football's turnover-filled triumph at Miami, Elko's impact as clear as ever

Duke made program history Saturday against Miami, forcing eight turnovers in its 45-21 win.
Duke made program history Saturday against Miami, forcing eight turnovers in its 45-21 win.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.—If its win against Virginia was not enough to convince you, Duke’s 45-21 annihilation of Miami at Hard Rock Stadium should be the final piece of evidence needed to affirm that the Blue Devils’ dark ages as the ACC’s bottom dwellers are no more. The Cavaliers and Hurricanes beat Duke by a combined 85 points last season and have now been beaten by a combined 45 points just a year later. That 130-point swing can be summed up in one phrase: the Elko effect. 

It is what happens when a defensive coach completely reforms the culture of a program. First-year head coach Mike Elko’s effect was epitomized in the Blue Devils’ historically dominant defensive performance Saturday afternoon. So maybe this is not just a piece of evidence of Duke’s competence, but also a clue into just how golden this new age can be.

When was the last time that the Blue Devils forced eight turnovers in a game? That question has no answer, because they did it for the first time in program history against Miami. Just more than halfway into his first year, Elko has already achieved a defensive feat that no other coach in Durham ever has. 

Those forced turnovers included five fumble recoveries, which has become a hallmark of this team. Coming into Saturday’s game, Duke was already the best in the nation at forcing and recovering fumbles, ranking first with 10 recoveries on the season. Now, its total has raised to an unprecedented 15. The Blue Devils’ three picks against Miami also put them at five total interceptions this year, meaning they have already tallied 20 takeaways—Duke is one of only two teams in the country to do so.

“We always just put an emphasis on turnovers,” sophomore cornerback Brandon Johnson said after the game. “And I'm just glad to see that, as a defense, we could get some out there. Eight is definitely a lot, but I'm proud of the defense in a way that we kept fighting through adversity.”

Fighting through adversity has highlighted the toughness of this defense. Four of Duke’s games have been within one score. It had to fight through adversity when Northwestern mounted a comeback in the second half. It had to fight through adversity on the road against a Jalon Daniels-led Kansas offense. It had to fight through adversity in back-to-back weeks, first on the road against Georgia Tech and then at home against the ACC’s best offense in North Carolina. The Blue Devils even had to fight through adversity multiple times against Miami when the Hurricanes were on the brink of taking a two-score lead. Fighting through adversity does not always mean coming out on top, but it does mean never folding, and Elko has constructed a defense that never folds.

As good as it has been at creating turnovers, Duke came into its Week 8 matchup with a glaring weakness that had persisted throughout the season and even cost them games: its pass defense. The Blue Devils rank second-to-last in passing yards allowed per game in the ACC and most of their struggles have come against pass-heavy offenses. So, with Miami leading the conference in pass attempts, this game looked like a recipe for disaster. The disaster, however, struck Miami.

“I think, again, probably the biggest philosophical shift in this program is how we play pass coverage,” Elko said. “And so every single week, we are getting closer to running this thing, the way we want it to look and the kids are working and they're grinding and we just got to continue to find ways to get the messaging clear to make sure they're comfortable with what we're trying to do.”

This Duke defense is not perfect. It takes more than turnovers to be a dominant defense. It takes eliminating big plays, limiting yardage and getting off the field on third and fourth downs. Duke still has a ways to go in those domains, but the light is there at the end of the tunnel. With a new head coach and youth all over the field, the Blue Devils are way ahead of schedule. Every week, their ceiling continues to rise, and as they rise along with it, they could keep reaching points never before seen in program history.

In the meantime, Duke can lean on having the best turnover-forcing defense an offense can ask for—that is the Elko effect.

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