MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.—Defense was the name of the game—and for a defensive coach, Duke made a dream come true.
The Blue Devils won 45-21 against Miami Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium after taming the football that seemed to jump hands nearly every play. The Blue Devil defense’s Darius Joiner, DeWayne Carter, Cam Dillon, Cameron Bergeron and Aeneas Peebles each forced fumbles and Duke’s third-quarter scoring drive brought the Blue Devils back in front after surrendering an early lead. Supplemented by the turnover machine, head coach Mike Elko’s team broke through in the fourth quarter to seal a win against the preseason No. 16 team.
"We challenged our guys on defense, we knew this was going to be a game where field position was going to matter, we were going to have to create turnovers to be successful," Elko said.
If fumbles were worth anything on their own, Saturday’s game would be an all-time shootout—five fumbles by Miami (3-4, 1-2 in the ACC) and two by Duke (5-3, 2-2) were key to nearly every score in the wild affair. Duke recorded eight total takeaways in the win, a program record.
Following a Miami score to go ahead 21-17 early in the second half, the next Duke drive showcased the Blue Devils’ determination to not let the game get too far out of reach, again representative of the kind of back-and-forth afternoon that was brewing on the Hurricanes’ turf. Three third-down and two fourth-down conversions saved a drive that put Duke ahead 24-21. A shovel pass from quarterback Riley Leonard to tight end Nicky Dalmolin finished off an 18-play drive that used up 9:22 of the third quarter.
"That goes to show you when we just do our things and do what we're supposed to do, nobody's gonna stop us," Leonard said.
Just when it seemed like the frantic, turnover-filled start to the game had settled down, Miami attempted its third fourth-down conversion from the Duke 44-yard line. Its fifth giveaway of the afternoon revved up the Duke offense as it drove for some more separation. Leonard again used his feet for a career-high third rushing touchdown. The next of the fumbles set up redshirt junior Jordan Waters for his seventh touchdown of the season and the dagger in the game with Duke leading 38-21. A pick six from sophomore defensive back Brandon Johnson with 5:16 to go iced the cake.
Short of a starting quarterback and behind by two scores entering the second half, Miami backup quarterback Jake Garcia connected with Saturday’s star wideout Colbie Young for his second touchdown catch of the day—a 71-yarder after poor tackling from sophomore defensive back Joshua Pickett. Miami came out of the gates ready to play, shooting down any movement Duke made toward breaking the game open until then.
"We had to go out there and respond. And that's what really good football teams do," Elko said.
And respond they did.
The football started getting bobbled around early, with the Blue Devils’ second play from scrimmage resulting in a fumble while Duke wide receiver Jalon Calhoun fought for extra yardage. After starting the season with 10 fumbles gained and none lost, the Blue Devils were the first to fall victim to the turnover plague within the game’s first five minutes. Miami capitalized by scoring the game’s first points with a throw and catch to a wide open Young, Miami’s emerging star wideout who has now scored in three consecutive games.
Despite Miami’s early consistency on offense, a failed fourth-down conversion and then a fumble recovered by linebacker Shaka Heyward with 14 seconds left in the first quarter injected some life into the Blue Devils. With 13:45 left in the second quarter, Leonard brought the score even with his feet on a nine-yard scamper through several green jerseys, his first touchdown of the game. Seconds later, sophomore defensive back Cameron Bergeron recovered Miami’s second fumble in under two minutes as the turnover bug switched hands. Duke capitalized again with Leonard extending the ball across the plane to give the Blue Devils the second-quarter 14-7 lead.
"That's what it's all about on defense: setting up the offense," Johnson said. "So really, I'm just glad that we could put our offense in good position to make plays."
While Miami’s Young was Duke’s kryptonite early on, as the clouds drifted and the South Florida sun bore down on the field, the Blue Devil defense turned up the heat as the first half rolled along. Several pass deflections and near interceptions combined with the fumbles and fourth-down stop—and next a Johnson sack to end a Miami possession—had the visitors in line to hold a lead entering the second half.
Minutes later, the Blue Devils forced their third fumble of the game and put the Duke offense in the red zone again. The fumble came on a sack which sent Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke to the locker room. He reportedly received X-rays for an upper-body injury and did not return.
When Garcia first entered the game, the first half finished with more of the same. Garcia ran into a fourth down after narrowly moving the chains on his first drive at the helm. With the clock winding down in the first half, the Hurricanes drove down to the Duke 30-yard line before Garcia launched a pass to Frank Ladson Jr., only for it to be snagged by junior defensive back Jaylen Stinson, prompting boos from the Miami faithful. His second interception in the game came in the fourth quarter, marking Duke’s first game in which a player grabbed two interceptions since 2017.
The Blue Devils have a bye this week before traveling to face Boston College Nov. 4.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.