Duke’s still rolling.
Eight days after becoming bowl eligible in their win against Boston College, the Blue Devils returned to Durham and took down Virginia Tech 24-7. Duke, led by sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard, fought back from an early 7-0 deficit. It took the lead in the second quarter and did not let up, holding the Hokies scoreless through for the rest of the game.
"Defensively, we played our best effort of the year," said head coach Mike Elko after the game. "I thought the way we controlled the line of scrimmage, the way we responded to the first big pass play, I thought we really kind of controlled the tempo of the game."
While the offense’s recovery after a sloppy first two series was notable, it was the defense’s quick turnaround that put Duke (7-3, 4-2 in the ACC) in control. After allowing a touchdown in the first quarter, the secondary tightened up its coverage and the line increased its pressure—the Hokies never reached the red zone. After surrendering 31 points to Boston College, which ranks 12th-worst in scoring offense in the nation, the defensive improvement was apparent. Defensive back Brandon Johnson led the charge with five tackles and two sacks. The sophomore’s stellar season has cemented him as a pillar of this Duke unit.
"He's gotten way more comfortable with it. I think he understands it really well," said Elko on Johnson's improved blitzing. "He's obviously very twitchy, and he has a low center of gravity, so he becomes hard to block."
Though the Blue Devils led the way for most of the game, it did not start that way. Duke gained a measly five yards on its opening series, and after a 38-yard punt from Porter Wilson, Virginia Tech (2-8, 1-6) set up shop on its own 45-yard line. After a modest two-yard gain on a Keshawn King reception, quarterback Grant Wells took a shot on second down, connecting with Da’Wain Lofton for a 53-yard score. The play mirrored Duke’s first offensive play call, when a deep ball from Leonard fell just out of reach of senior receiver Jalon Calhoun’s outstretched fingers.
That trend continued early for the Blue Devil offense. Leonard started 1-for-5 and struggled with accuracy. After only handing the ball off once in its first two drives, Duke changed things up for its third possession. A lead-off rush by Jaylen Coleman set up a 13-yard catch by Sahmir Hagans for the Blue Devils’ second first down of the game. That opened the floodgates as Leonard proceeded to pick apart the Hokies’ secondary, finding Calhoun for completions of 18 and 31 yards to get Duke into the red zone. Freshman kicker Todd Pelino knocked the 25-yard attempt through to put the Blue Devils on the board.
"The defense curbed the momentum of that first half for sure and got us back in rhythm, got us back under control in the game," said Elko.
Though it still trailed 7-3, that possession was the turning point for Duke. Following the score, the defense upped its pressure on Wells, forcing a quick three-and-out. Leonard and the offense drove the field, winding almost five minutes off the clock before throwing an interception on Virginia Tech’s 2-yard line. After another strong stop by the defensive line deep in Hokie territory and a 22-yard punt return by Calhoun, the Blue Devil offense set up only 40 yards from the end zone. It only took Duke five plays to get there.
The Blue Devils’ first touchdown, in stark contrast to their scoring trends this season, was through the air. Immediately following a 13-yard bullet on fourth-and-7 to Jontavis Robertson, Leonard let it fly, connecting with Nicky Dalmolin near the sideline. The tight end stayed in bounds and cut inside the pylon for his third score of the year.
The loss of offensive lineman Jacob Monk for the remainder of the season did not slow Duke’s rushing game, which totaled 165 yards. However, the majority of the early offensive production was a result of Leonard’s arm. It took him about 26 minutes to surpass the 158-yard mark through the air, his total from last week against Boston College.
After his slow start, Leonard finished 19-of-31 for 262 yards, a large chunk of which came from big plays. The Fairhope, Ala., native had 10 passes for more than 15 yards, keeping the pace of play quick and the Hokies’ secondary on its heels. He was far from one-dimensional, though. The sophomore tallied 48 yards on the ground, including a diving five-yard score that extended Duke’s lead to 10 in the third quarter.
"We're always in control of the game," said Leonard. "And today, you know, I think that showed."
The Blue Devils will head to Pittsburgh next week for their final road game of the season, taking on the Panthers Nov. 19 at noon.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.