They did it. After 721 days, the Blue Devils have beaten an ACC opponent.
Duke defeated Virginia Saturday night 38-17 at Wallace Wade Stadium. It was 60 minutes of offensive efficiency and defensive domination. The Blue Devils controlled every aspect of the game, pounding the Cavaliers' defense on the ground and disrupting Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s rhythm through the air. They tallied 26 first downs, 248 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
But where did this Duke team come from?
Last season’s conference slate proved devastating for the Blue Devils. They lost all eight of their ACC matchups by an average of 31.8 points per game. They ranked last in the nation in yards per game allowed with 518. Senior running back Mataeo Durant was the sole source of hope on a seemingly hopeless team, driving the offense as the defense surrendered 39.8 points per game.
In last year’s matchup against Virginia, Duke was shut out 48-0. Nothing went right for the squad that was already two ACC losses into the year as it turned the ball over four times, one of which was a goal-line fumble by then-freshman backup quarterback Riley Leonard with less than two minutes to play. Those fourth-quarter snaps were the first of Leonard’s career, and they were memorable.
“We have to remember the past, but we can't live in it,” Leonard said of the fumble Saturday.
Though his past mistakes might have been on his mind, the sophomore did not let that show against Virginia. The Fairhope, Ala., native had 188 all-purpose yards and three total touchdowns. His 75% completion percentage exemplifies his efficiency and accuracy and, in a game that was dominated by the rush, Leonard still led his team with poise.
“With the new staff, new offense, new defense, new special teams to come out and get our first ACC win is huge…” said Leonard. “It was good to get some redemption.”
For much of the Blue Devil faithful, it might feel like redemption. It might feel like after all of that struggle, after the winless ACC season and trying times over the past few years, that now is Duke’s time. That this game, this first ACC win in 721 days, this first win against Virginia in eight years, means that much more. And they have ample reason to be optimistic; people are stepping up and making plays. The defense is getting stops and forcing turnovers. The offense is capitalizing on its opportunities. All the little things that seemed to go the other way last year now seem to be going in the Blue Devil’s favor, and all it took was one ACC win.
Head coach Mike Elko disagrees.
“When you start talking about, monumental wins, like oh, it's a big ACC win or you haven't beaten that team in X number of years and you haven't won. I mean, like all that stuff, it's for you guys. It's not for our locker room,” said Elko.
When Duke hired Elko in December 2021, he took over a defeated program. Games lacked attendance and student enthusiasm, the team was often difficult to watch and there was a lack of necessary talent to compete with the big guns in the ACC. In Elko’s short tenure, he has helped to mend and elevate the Blue Devils’ culture. By raising the stakes weekly, he has effectively lowered the pressure surrounding singular games.
“The expectations around here are changing,” said Elko.
Elko’s expectations are clear—to win games and compete in the ACC. For those who braved the latter half of last season, that expectation might seem ludicrous and extreme. However, little by little, Elko has been proving that his words are more than just that. It is those little things that have proven to be the difference-makers. Against Virginia Saturday night, the Blue Devils only committed three penalties, showcasing their cleaner and more disciplined play. The focuses in practice find their way into games, like Duke’s six pass breakups.
“That's just something that we harp on,” said defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin. Franklin broke up two passes and collected the lone sack of the day for the Blue Devil defense, but it came on third-and-goal for the Cavaliers and forced a field goal attempt.
The continuous intensity and high level of play that Duke exhibited imply significant improvement from last season. However, expectations should still be managed.
While this year’s team is acting as an effective, cohesive unit that has proven it can win games, it by no means is perfect. Its 2022 recruiting class ranked eighth in the ACC and 52nd nationally. The 2023 class is currently ranked 35th nationally. Duke is definitely on the up, but expecting it to appear in the ACC championship in December is a little extreme. The team is improving—no one is denying that. But it needs room to grow, and one conference win, while unprecedented by last year’s terms, is not enough evidence to scream “Duke football is back” from the rooftops.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.