In its final regular season game, Duke football defeated Wake Forest in a thrilling contest, 34-31. The Blue Zone breaks down the Blue Devils’ performance with three key takeaways, stats and a look ahead:
Three key takeaways:
1. Riley Leonard’s career day
With hopes of earning a better bowl game, the Blue Devils put their trust in quarterback Riley Leonard, who delivered arguably the greatest performance of his young collegiate career. The sophomore threw for a career-high 391 yards and four touchdowns while completing 29-of-41 passing attempts for a sublime 70.7% completion rate. Leonard’s heroics were apparent on the Blue Devils’ final two drives. Down four points with 2:57 left in the game, the signal caller was unfazed, starting the drive with a 30-yard pass to wideout Jalon Calhoun. Leonard would earn the game-winning score on the very next play with a 20-yard pass to receiver Sahmir Hagans. Following an interception of Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman by defensive back Darius Joiner, Leonard completed a 26-yard pass to Hagans to ice the game in the Blue Devils’ favor.
2. Prolific offense
With the Blue Devils and Demon Deacons both looking to earn their eighth wins of the season, head coaches Mike Elko and Dave Clawson unleashed the offenses of their respective squads. Duke and Wake Forest combined for 960 total yards and 65 points while playing mistake-free football for most of the night, as each team only committed one turnover. Interestingly, both offenses rushed for over 100 yards but were held to under four yards per carry. In an ACC marked this season by strong quarterback play, the passing attacks of both teams proved strong; Leonard and Hartman attempted 41 and 42 passes respectively, with the former averaging a stellar 9.5 yards per attempt. With bowl games ahead, both teams hope to play up to the offensive potential shown on Saturday night.
3. Defensive pressure
While Duke’s defense allowed 31 points, its pass rush was apparent throughout the night. The Blue Devils tallied six quarterback hurries on Hartman, including two from graduate defensive end Anthony Nelson. Defensive tackle DeWayne Carter proved critical to Duke on defense, as he garnered a hurry, a sack and two tackles for loss. Carter’s sack came on a Wake Forest third-and-2 with just over three minutes left in the game, allowing Duke’s offense to retake the field and score the go-ahead touchdown.
Three key stats:
1. 2 100-yard receivers
Of Duke’s 391 passing yards, 313 of them were split between wide receivers Calhoun and Hagans. Calhoun, a senior wideout who had never been on a Duke squad with a winning record prior to this season, played an instrumental role in the Blue Devils’ eighth victory of the season. Calhoun hauled in 11 receptions for 174 yards and a score in Saturday’s win, shattering his previous career-highs of eight catches and 108 yards. His touchdown occurred with 9:04 left in the second quarter, where he evaded three defenders to reach the endzone. Redshirt freshman Hagans wasn’t far behind, as he secured eight catches for 139 yards and two scores—all career bests. Hagans’ most critical catch may have been the best play of Duke’s season, as he grabbed the game-winning touchdown over Demon Deacons defensive back Gavin Holmes to secure the victory. With their finest days yet as Blue Devils in the books, Calhoun and Hagans look to repeat their stellar performances in Duke’s upcoming bowl game.
2. 3 double-digit tacklers
The Blue Devil defense continued to stop the run Saturday, and a large part of that success was due to linebackers Shaka Heyward and Cam Dillon. Heyward registered 13 tackles on the night, tying his season-high, while also earning a sack in the process. Meanwhile, Dillon logged a career-high 10 tackles and added a pass deflection. Graduate defensive back Datrone Young also joined in with 10 tackles and a pass breakup. Needless to say, Heyward, Dillon, Young and the rest of Duke’s defensive backfield all took on heavy workloads against Wake Forest’s running backs and receivers, but did just enough to earn a close win against the Demon Deacons.
3. 117 yards on kick returns
In any level of football, the starting point of an offensive drive often determines its success. Indeed, Duke was aided well by strong kick returns from defensive back Jaylen Stinson early in the game. On the opening kickoff, Stinson brought the ball to the Blue Devils’ 32-yard line, which helped Duke kick a field goal to take an early 3-0 lead. After Wake Forest responded with a touchdown, Stinson returned the following kick 35 yards to set up a short field for Riley Leonard and the offense to work with. Seven plays later, Sahmir Hagans caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from Leonard to retake the lead. Perhaps the Blue Devils’ biggest break of the night occurred following a shanked punt from Matthew Dennis with 2:57 left in the game, giving Duke the ball at its own 35. One pass interference call and two plays later, the Blue Devils scored the go-ahead touchdown.
Head coach Mike Elko’s first season at Duke has been a resounding success, and the Blue Devils’ win as an underdog against Wake Forest Saturday acts as a microcosm for the unexpected achievements of the year. Duke football has earned its first eight-win regular season since 2014 and hopes to improve to 9-4 with a win in its upcoming bowl game, which will be announced on Dec. 4. In the meantime, the Blue Devils and Elko will reflect on the season’s victories, missed opportunities and trials, with great expectations for the program in the years to come.
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