It has been a stormy weekend in Durham, where the sound of shattering tree branches, whistling wind gusts and rumbles of thunder set a deafening chorus around campus and the cascade of rain cast a dull gray cloud over Duke’s famous gothic architecture.
At Wallace Wade Stadium, however, an entirely different storm was brewing Saturday evening, as Duke rode a fast start to a 38-17 thrashing of Virginia, placing last year’s 48-0 shutout on the road and seven-year winless run against the Cavaliers firmly in the rearview mirror.
"We're not going to be a highs and lows type of program," Duke head coach Mike Elko said after the game. "We're going to celebrate success and we're going to learn from failure—we're gonna do those things for sure. I'll certainly enjoy this one."
Much of the talk going into Saturday’s contest was the quarterback battle between Duke’s Riley Leonard and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong. Though the latter lit the ACC on fire last season for 4,449 passing yards, the senior has struggled in 2022 and continued to do so against the Blue Devils (4-1, 1-0 in the ACC) with 202 yards, one touchdown and an interception on 19 completions.
But where Armstrong was tossing water balloons, Leonard was shooting darts.
The sophomore once again repaid Elko’s faith with a commanding 188 yards of total offense and three total touchdowns on an 18-for-24 completion rate, torching a Cavalier secondary that may have expected to defend more against the run than the pass due to the inclement weather.
Evidently, Elko’s wet-ball drills during practice this week paid dividends. Leonard was just as precise in the air as has come to be expected from the Fairhope, Ala., native, and yet again made a quarterback battle that might have eluded him a season ago, competitive.
"Really, I've just been coached extremely well," Leonard said. "Every decision I make comes from the coaching staff. They've coached me out to be a protect-the-ball-first type quarterback so [I] really appreciate them and the progress they've made in my game."
Armstrong brought the score to 21-7 toward the end of the second quarter via an 11-yard dump to senior Perris Jones, whose diving effort snuck just inside the pylon. The score marked just the fourth passing touchdown Armstrong has logged this season, but brought Virginia (2-3, 0-2) some much-needed momentum as the first half wound to a close.
Just as Duke seemed to lose its mojo, Leonard steered his team back on course and placed it firmly in control once more via his one-yard touchdown rush to set the score 28-7 in the Blue Devils’ favor on their first drive of the second half. The quarterback was instrumental to yet another flying start for Elko’s group, conducting a ruthless 12-minute stretch that put Duke out of reach before Virginia could even start chasing.
The Blue Devils have prided themselves on fast starts this season and have utilized them advantageously (see Northwestern), but found immense difficulty trying to break down the Cavalier defense in the game’s opening minutes, especially under the torrential downpour. It is the second-straight game in which they were stalled on their debut drive following a three-and-out opener against Kansas last weekend.
Much like the weather, however, that quickly changed.
Just when it felt like they were holding for the Cavaliers, the floodgates crashed open. Flags for unnecessary roughness and a personal foul pushed the Blue Devils to Virginia’s 19-yard line, where Leonard scoped out senior receiver Jalon Calhoun at the near pylon for the game’s opening score. Just under seven minutes later, Leonard took his turn in the spotlight with a 17-yard first-down scamper and then a touchdown sneak to put Duke up 14-0.
Just seconds after that rush, kicker Charlie Ham tripped Cavalier kick returner Demick Starling for a fumble past midfield. For the third time in the first half alone, Duke was soon celebrating in the Virginia end zone, this time courtesy of running back Jordan Waters’ single-yard leap over the offensive line.
Elsewhere on the ground, redshirt junior Jaylen Coleman set career highs in both carries and yards with 19 attempts for 97 yards, while sophomore Jaquez Moore twisted the dagger early in the fourth quarter with a 59-yard charge through the Cavalier defense to put the Blue Devils up 35-10 and the game to bed. A win was already locked up at that point, but Duke refused to relent and instead converted 2021’s blowout into one of its own.
For all the plaudits Leonard and company will no doubt receive on offense, Duke’s defense was just as instrumental to the team’s success. Ham’s forced fumble caused Waters’ touchdown, defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin’s 11-yard sack on Armstrong late in the third quarter turned a near-certain six points into three and the secondary made the Cavalier receiving corps’ life immensely tough throughout. Graduate student Darius Joiner piled on by picking off Armstrong’s last pass of the game, too.
The result marks the Blue Devils’ first ACC triumph since 2020 and brings Elko his first conference win as head coach.
"We want to execute, we want to perform," Elko said. "We did that tonight and we're going to celebrate that ... and we'll get back to work."
Rain or shine—and Saturday’s game saw both—Duke proved that it is ready to compete. Next up is an Oct. 8 trip to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech, followed by a crucial home date with rival North Carolina Oct. 15.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.