Duke is playing football in December.
With a trip to a bowl game on the table, the Blue Devils brought an offensive onslaught to Boston College in their 38-31 win at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass. The bye week in the rearview mirror, a still banged-up Duke team was able to build a lead early on before extending the margin with the help of a strong running game and a good-enough defensive performance to keep the Eagles two scores behind as Duke notched its crucial sixth win.
The Blue Devils will now likely play in a bowl game for the first time since 2018, when a Daniel Jones-led Duke team defeated Temple in the Independence Bowl. Defying preseason expectations, head coach Mike Elko also becomes the first Blue Devil head coach to reach a bowl game in his first season since Fred Goldsmith accomplished the feat with his 8-4 team in 1994.
"It's a monumental night because it symbolizes where we've come from," Elko said. "... Obviously it's the first step in a successful season as an ACC program is becoming eligible."
Duke opened up the second half with a drive during which quarterback Riley Leonard, wide receiver Sahmir Hagans and running back Jaquez Moore each contributed plays of 15-plus yards. Moore closed out the drive and ended any aspirations that Boston College had to immediately come out of the break strong.
Back-and-forth unproductive drives from both sides then fed into an 80-yard Boston College drive which included a fourth-down completion to receiver Joseph Griffin Jr. along the sideline before ending in a Zay Flowers catch-and-run touchdown. The star receiver spun through the Blue Devil defense and extended the ball over the plane to keep the game close at 31-21 and give redshirt freshman quarterback Emmett Morehead a clear top target down the stretch.
Duke (6-3, 3-2 in the ACC) did not relent—Moore punched in his second of the evening at the beginning of the fourth quarter to keep up the high-octane offense. To continue the second-half back-and-forth, however, Boston College (2-7, 1-4) would not let the 17-point deficit stop it from clawing back into a two-score game with another long completion to Griffin.
With under seven minutes to go, Shaka Heyward sacked Morehead on third down as Boston College was approaching midfield aiming to close the gap further. Three minutes later, Darius Joiner recorded Duke’s fifth sack of the night on a fourth down to all but seal the win.
"Oh, yeah, those are big time," redshirt junior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. "Our coaches, they dial up the best blitzes every single weekend, we kind of just go out and execute."
Boston College’s last-ditch effort to tie the game led the Eagles to a field goal with 17 seconds left before failing to convert an onside kick.
The Blue Devils started pounding the rock on the ground in their first possession of the evening, gaining rushes of 13 and nine yards from Waters before Leonard took it 60 yards on the read option for the first score of the night with the Eagles’ defense offering little resistance. The sophomore signal-caller, who entered Friday leading the team in rushing yards, continued to take advantage of strong blocking and a plethora of holes to average 7.4 yards per carry.
The Eagles entered the Friday night affair last in the nation in rushing offense, and the Blue Devils capitalized by outgaining their opponents 232-75 on the ground. The rushing offense—propelled by Leonard’s second 90-yard game in Duke’s last three games—has been one of the biggest points of emphasis for the offense and one of the main factors in achieving the bowl-clinching victory with three games still to play.
"We expect to win win a lot more. So six was the bare minimum," Leonard said.
Walk-on freshman kicker Todd Pelino finished off the next Duke scoring drive with starter Charlie Ham out for the second-straight game. Pelino has provided Duke with a 2-for-2 performance on field goals while nailing his first 11 extra points.
Also in the first quarter, a third-down pass interference call spoiled a red-zone stand that resulted in the Eagles’ first touchdown to return the Blue Devils’ early score. Morehead found Griffin against the sideline for a toe-tapping 36-yard catch to bring Boston College deep into Duke territory before finding the wideout Flowers in the end zone.
Morehead, making his first career start, filled in for starter Phil Jurkovec, who was injured in the second half of the Eagles’ Oct. 29 loss against Connecticut.
As Morehead struggled early to initiate drives downfield and the clock was controlled wholly by the Blue Devils, Duke began pulling away as it widened the gap in first downs and total yardage. Hagans caught a Leonard touchdown pass just before Morehead finally began moving his team down the field with a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive to cut Duke’s lead to 24-14 and bring some life to the Eagles offense before the break.
"We knew they were going to compete with tremendous heart. And they certainly did that for all four quarters tonight," Elko said. "We felt like in order for us to put ourselves in position to be successful, we wanted to jump on them early and try to make them play from behind and then they kept pestering, they kept answering."
Aside from the scoring drives, the first half was defined by the five total three-and-outs and quick defensive drives by Duke with Boston College backed up against its own end zone. The stops netted the Blue Devils starting field position at their own 49-yard line three consecutive trips, with two resulting in touchdowns.
The Blue Devil running game took center stage early as it eclipsed the century mark just more than midway through the first frame. In injury news for the visitors, redshirt junior running back Jaylen Coleman suited up but did not appear; he has not seen the field since sustaining an injury against Virginia Oct. 1—Moore, with 105 total yards, effectively stepped up into the second backfield slot again.
Duke returns to Wallace Wade Stadium to host Virginia Tech Nov. 12 at noon.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.