In many ways, it was just like any other win.
As Duke capped off its transformation into a bowl-eligible program Friday night in Chestnut Hill, Mass., with a 38-31 win against Boston College that was a great deal more commanding than the final score suggests, there were no game-saving heroics, nor was there a need for a second-half comeback by the visiting Blue Devils. After taking control early, Duke did what good teams do by holding the Eagles at an arm’s length the rest of the way.
The remarkable thing about Duke’s remarkable night—a night on which it more than likely punched its ticket to the postseason for the first time since 2018—was how unremarkable it was. A Blue Devil win seemed all but inevitable, and after 60 minutes of winning football, that was exactly what came to pass.
Rewind to where the Blue Devils stood before head coach Mike Elko’s hiring in December 2021—firmly at the bottom of the ACC, and possibly the bottom of college football—and that inevitability is remarkable all alone.
“For us, to come from where we were 10 months ago to here, bowl eligible with three to go, it is just a testament to everybody in our University and our program. … What they have done in the last 10 months to change the image of this program and the direction of this program cannot be understated,” Elko said after the game. “They have bought into everything we asked them to do and played their hearts out.”
With its sixth win Friday, Duke surpassed its 5-18 record from the prior two seasons combined. Three-quarters of the way into Elko’s first campaign, the Blue Devils sit second in the ACC Coastal Division behind North Carolina, and while the Tar Heels are likely out of striking distance with the head-to-head tiebreaker, Duke keeps winning—on the road, no less—regardless of circumstance.
It was an offseason of great change in the ACC. New head coaches took over four of the league’s 15 programs, with Elko inheriting the toughest turn-it-around situation of any of them. The 45-year-old has quickly separated himself from the pack, guiding Duke to wins against Tony Elliott’s Virginia and Mario Cristobal’s Miami by a combined 45 points.
First season or not, Elko and his new-look staff have taken the necessary steps to lead these Blue Devils from bottom-dweller status to borderline ACC contender. There is plenty of football left to be played this fall, but Friday’s milestone—a sort of official coronation for the Blue Devils of new—provided reason to celebrate that turnaround.
“It’s always been about proving ourselves right,” junior captain and defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said of proving others wrong. “So it’s monumental in the sense that we keep proving ourselves right and believing in ourselves, and that’s the biggest thing for me, just knowing that we continue to go out each week and we’re focused on us, and everything’s about us. It’s never about the opponent, it’s about us.”
In hindsight, Duke never put Boston College out of the picture Friday. On their best nights, the Blue Devils might have turned a 24-7 lead into something bigger, running away with things early in the second half. But the nation’s top turnover-forcing team never took the ball out of Boston College quarterback Emmett Morehead’s hands; the redshirt freshman making his first start for the injured Phil Jurkovec had his way late after a tentative start, tossing for 330 yards and four touchdowns to keep the Eagles’ hopes alive to the very end.
With or without turnovers on their side, the Blue Devils found a way to win. Part of that was not falling behind in the giveaway battle—Duke never coughed up the ball itself—and part of it was the defense’s big-play ability when it mattered. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s unit held Boston College to 4-of-14 on third down. Veteran defenders Shaka Heyward and Darius Joiner made a pair of huge fourth-quarter plays, sacking Morehead on the blitz to take the ball away from the upstart Eagles when they needed it most.
But the name of the game, for Duke, was running the football. The ACC’s second-ranked ground attack had the clear edge early, starting with Waters’ first few carries and made official by sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard’s 60-yard scoring run—his third rushing score of 50 yards or more this season.
The Eagles knew what was coming and finally had some success stopping the Blue Devils on the ground in the fourth quarter. But for the majority of the night, Duke got what it wanted, racking up 233 rushing yards by game’s end.
“I thought we were able to do a lot of things creatively,” Elko said of Duke’s success on the ground. “They played a loaded box all night. … We came up with some different looks and different things we were able to do to create leverage. Riley’s big run, Jaquez Moore had a few, Jordan Waters had a few, and we were really able to get the run game going. Credit to them, they did a really good job of adjusting and there are only so many different ways to do it against the amount of people they had.”
In sticking to its running style—the fact that the group already has its hallmark should not be taken for granted—the Blue Devils overcame an Eagles team that refused to go away and held on for a coveted road win in conference play. For Elko and Duke, of course, it was much more than just that.
Even with all of that finality, the Blue Devils still have work to do down the stretch, as Elko, Carter and Leonard each noted after the game. It was a good night for Duke and the culmination of a long—yet, in some ways, abbreviated—road back to relevancy, but it is just another win and the start of the next pursuit for a very good football team.
Now, Duke gets an extra day of rest before hosting a midday showdown Nov. 12 against Virginia Tech at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“What I told them was this: I said, credit to you for the amount of work you put in to win six games and become bowl eligible with three to play, but there’s three to play,” Elko said. “So there's three more opportunities for us to go out, to win nine football games this year, to become a second-place football team in this division and who knows, down the stretch, put pressure on some people and see what happens.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.