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5 observations and more from Duke football's first half against Virginia Tech

Tight end Nicky Dalmolin hauled in Duke's lone touchdown of the first half.
Tight end Nicky Dalmolin hauled in Duke's lone touchdown of the first half.

After falling behind early to visiting Virginia Tech, Duke clawed its way back in a tight battle at Wallace Wade Stadium. With 30 minutes to play, the Blue Devils lead 10-7 in Durham.

Five observations:

Leonard’s legs:

As has come to be expected from Duke’s sophomore quarterback, Riley Leonard once again made the most of his rushing abilities in the first half with 30 yards on the ground. Averaging 64.1 yards per game leading into Saturday’s contest, Leonard has been a difference maker with his knack for evading defenders and pushing his way down the field, logging nine rushing touchdowns in the process. He may not have scored, but his ability to run was invaluable to the Blue Devils’ early offense.

Struggles in the secondary:

From Virginia Tech’s opening play, it became clear that despite the Blue Devils’ renaissance on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, their secondary still has room for improvement. The cornerbacks got burned on Virginia Tech’s 53-yard opening touchdown and struggled to contain quarterback Grant Wells’ passes. The Hokies relied heavily on the passing game throughout the opening 30 minutes of play and Duke’s secondary will need to tighten up to limit Virginia Tech’s effectiveness in the second half.

Classy Calhoun:

Senior receiver Jalon Calhoun once again proved his worth to head coach Mike Elko’s team with a commanding performance. The Greenville, S.C., product logged 94 yards on five receptions, including a series of impressive kick returns to start Blue Devil drives in good field position. Had it not been for a few overthrown passes by Leonard, Calhoun very well could have had upwards of 150 yards in the first half alone.

A new kicker in town:

In the absence of usual starting kicker Charlie Ham, freshman Todd Pelino has stepped into the role. The Cornelius, N.C., native had yet to miss a field goal or extra point as Elko’s starting kicker and converted from 25 yards out for Duke’s opening three points of the first half. His 45-yard attempt late in the second quarter went just wide, but Blue Devil fans can nonetheless find solace in the fact that Ham’s replacement can do a serviceable job of his own.

Waters’ near-touchdown:

To open the second quarter, Leonard took the snap and handed the ball off to junior running back Jordan Waters, who evaded the defensive line and multiple last-gasp tackles to take the ball 65 yards to the house. The Wallace Wade crowd was expectedly jubilant, but the celebrations were short-lived as the play was called back for an offensive holding call and Duke was forced to drive bit-by-bit down the field instead, resulting in an interception on the Hokies’ two-yard line.

By the numbers:

11-for-19 in the air:

Sitting at a 64.4% average completion rate leading into Saturday, Leonard shook off a slow start to connect on 11-of-19 attempts for 162 yards and a touchdown against the Hokies in the first half. Once Duke found its rhythm in the air it became instantly more dangerous, and if Duke hopes to up its offensive fluidity in the second half and grow its lead, it will need Leonard’s arm to maintain its accuracy and find its receivers just as frequently.

4-for-9 on third down:

A large part of the Blue Devils’ early clunkiness on the attacking side of the ball can be attributed to their difficulty in turning third downs into first downs. Duke was stalled to two consecutive three-and-outs to begin the game and was stopped on a crucial red-zone third down near the end of the first quarter. The same cannot be said for fourth down, as Duke converted a crucial fourth-and-7 to set up tight end Nicky Dalmolin’s 24-yard touchdown catch the following play.

Leonard’s fifth interception:

Against Boston College last weekend, neither the Blue Devils nor Eagles turned the ball over, a far cry from the eight-turnover demolition job put on by Elko’s team in Miami before the bye week. Duke sat third in the country in turnover margin entering Saturday and had given the ball away just six times all season, a large part of why it will play in a bowl game and finish with at least six wins for the first time since 2018. Against Virginia Tech, it was the Blue Devil offense that surrendered the ball first, as Leonard’s look to the end zone was bobbled and caught by the Hokies’ Mansoor Delane to stop the drive cold.

A play that mattered:

On Virginia Tech’s second offensive play of the half, Wells loaded up and let one loose 53 yards downfield to wideout Da’Wain Lofton for the game’s opening touchdown. The Hokies have struggled to make the most of their receiving corps and the arm of their quarterback in recent games, sitting 95th in the country in passing yards per game, but head coach Brent Pry and his team made clear from the jump Saturday that their approach to defeating the Blue Devils was a relentless assault from the air. Defensive lineman DeWayne Carter also went down injured on the play, leaving Elko without one of his captains for much of the first quarter.


Andrew Long | Blue Zone editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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