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Extra point: Defensive recovery key in Duke football's win against Virginia Tech

<p>The Duke offense held the ball for nearly 39 minutes in its defeat of Virginia Tech.&nbsp;</p>

The Duke offense held the ball for nearly 39 minutes in its defeat of Virginia Tech. 

Duke bounced back after a slow start against Virginia Tech on Saturday afternoon to move to 7-3 and 4-2 in the ACC. The Blue Zone is here with three key takeaways, stats and a look ahead after the win:

Three key takeaways

1. Recovering from a slow opening

The first quarter of football was not a good one for the Blue Devils. They opened the game with a three-and-out and a punt, and were subsequently punished by the Hokies. Virginia Tech put its first—and only—points on the board with a two-play touchdown drive on its first offensive possession. Quarterback Grant Wells hit receiver Da’Wain Lofton for the 53-yard score. The Duke offense still struggled throughout the first quarter, with another punt and then a drive that sputtered out in the red zone and forced the Blue Devils to settle for a field goal. But after that initial touchdown, the Duke defense held the Hokies scoreless, allowing sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard’s offense to get its bearings and rally in the second period of play. The Blue Devils scored a touchdown in every quarter after the first.

2. Leonard’s return to the passing game

After the past two contests, where Leonard mostly shied away from throwing the ball and instead opted to hand it off or use his legs to gain yards himself, the Duke signal caller went back to his arm against the Hokies. While he only gathered 48 yards on the ground, well below the 62.3 yards he averaged entering the game, Leonard made up for that difference and more through the air. He threw for 262 yards at a respectable 61.3% completion rate. While there were no deep throws reminiscent of the early-season offense, Leonard consistently moved the unit forward through the air and allowed Duke to make up yardage when the run game struggled.

3. Kickers continue to flounder

Duke’s kicking unit has struggled this year. Redshirt junior Charlie Ham had difficulty finding the uprights this season, missing six field goals in seven games, and while freshman Todd Pelino was perfect through his first two starts, that streak was broken against Virginia Tech. The Atlanta native went 1-for-2 on his field goal tries, making a 25-yarder but failing to convert from 45. Multiple times, head coach Mike Elko chose to go for it on fourth down instead of attempting the kick. The Blue Devils will need to get their special teams in order if they want to keep up the success they have enjoyed so far this year.

Three key stats

1. 38:59 time of possession

One of the reasons the Blue Devils were able to come away with this win is the amount of time they held the ball. They ran slow, methodical drives that drained time off of the clock and prevented Virginia Tech from even having the opportunity to score. As Duke aimed to keep the ball on the ground, running backs Jordan Waters and Jaylen Coleman each put up at least 50 rushing yards, and the Blue Devils were able to control the pace of the game, slowing down and speeding up as the momentum shifted back and forth.

2. 4-for-12 on third down, 0-for-2 on fourth down

While these are technically two different stats, they tell the same story. When the key downs came, Virginia Tech could not convert. More than once, the Hokies managed to drive well into Duke territory before stalling out on third down when the Blue Devils defense held strong. Had Virginia Tech managed to convert on those key opportunities, perhaps this game would have gone differently. 

3. Zero sacks

One of the big reasons Duke came away with the win on Saturday was because the Hokies could not get to Leonard. The signal caller rarely saw pressure, and for the most part had plenty of time to sit in the pocket and find his receivers. Even when the Hokies looked like they were about to bring Leonard down, he was able to slip away, finding a blocker or a hole and taking the ball himself for a sizable gain. Had Virginia Tech been able to put some pressure on Leonard it would have been much easier for the Hokies to get stops and create chances for an offense that needed all the help it could get. 

Looking ahead

Next week, Elko’s squad will travel to Pittsburgh for a noon matchup against the 6-4 Panthers. Pittsburgh is coming off of two big wins, beating then-No. 20 Syracuse 19-9 and blowing out Virginia 37-7. The Panthers recorded a season-high eight sacks against the Cavaliers, largely on the back of defensive lineman Calijah Kancey who accounted for three. Both teams are rolling, and this looks to be a tight matchup between two solid defensive teams.  


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