Duke’s 24-7 victory Saturday against Virginia Tech was significant for many reasons for head coach Mike Elko and the Blue Devils—perhaps the best defensive performance of the season, 310 total yards for quarterback Riley Leonard, a seventh win after a combined five wins the two seasons prior. The most important, however, may be the depth they showed out wide.
Duke combined for 262 passing yards against the Hokies, its most since a 324-yard air raid against Kansas in September. Among this was a 94-yard, five-reception game from senior Jalon Calhoun, a crucial fourth-down one-hander by sophomore Jordan Moore and 81 yards and a first-career touchdown for junior Jontavis Robertson to put the Blue Devils ahead by three scores. On top of it all, that came without starting senior Eli Pancol, who is projected to miss the rest of the season with a lower body injury.
“Jalon has been there all year,” Elko said after the game. “I just continue to be proud of him and the headspace that he's in, and how hard he comes out and works and gets himself ready to go. He's playing at a really, really high level right now for us.”
“We went into the game thinking we were gonna give [Robertson] a few more opportunities out there today, and man, did he take advantage of them,” Elko added. “We know when he's right and he plays the game the way he's capable of playing, he's a really dynamic wide receiver.”
Even outside the Calhoun-Robertson duo, it was a team performance in every sense of the word.
The focus for much of this season has justifiably been on the Herculean rushing efforts of Jordan Waters, Jaquez Moore, Jaylen Coleman and even Leonard. Duke sits second in the ACC and 21st in the country in total rushing yards and put up a more-than-respectable 165 yards on the ground against Virginia Tech, but quietly, it has overhauled its passing game into an effective and even dangerous unit capable of winning games on its own.
This was on full display Saturday afternoon. The whole arsenal was unleashed against the Hokies, and they simply could not withstand the barrage.
The crazy thing is that it could have been even uglier for first-year head coach Brent Pry and his Virginia Tech team. Had it not been for a few overthrown passes in the first half, Calhoun could have had well over 150 receiving yards in the opening 30 minutes alone. If Leonard’s touchdown-bound pass in the second quarter was not picked off on the 2-yard line, it would have added another 30-or-so yards to his tally and another six points to the receiving corps' total.
“I missed Calhoun on a deep one, and I wish I could get that back,” Leonard said of his first throw of the game. “But that kind of just opened my eyes. We were gonna attack these guys and we have the capability to do so.”
Despite all the ‘nearly’ moments this game presented, the real story lies in what actually occurred.
The two plays of the game for Duke occurred in direct succession of one another. On fourth-and-5 and on the far end of field goal range, Elko elected to back his team and go for it. Leonard took the snap and a long look before letting it fly just behind the onrushing Jordan Moore, whose extended left hand got just enough on the ball to bail Leonard out and set the Blue Devils up for a shot at the end zone. They made the most of the sophomore receiver's exceptional bout of athleticism as Leonard’s lobbed pass sailed over the Hokie defender for Robertson to haul down, putting Duke ahead by 17.
“In the fourth quarter, we had a chance to go for it again and we did,” Elko said. “I thought that was a great catch by Jordan [Moore]. It wasn't the best ball and he was able to make a great catch on it. And then obviously Jontavis wins the next play and now it's a three-score game. When you make it a three-score game that changes everything.”
The runners were instrumental to the win, as they have been all year, but when it got into crunch time and Duke needed points, it was the wideouts that grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and, metaphorically and literally, wrestled it into Blue Devil hands after a shaky start.
Virginia Tech quarterback Grant Wells’ 53-yard bomb for the game’s opening score sent a warning Duke’s way about the dangers of a well-oiled receiving machine, in much the same way that Drake Maye did for North Carolina or Jalon Daniels did for Kansas. Leonard struggled to match that energy for much of the first half but caught fire as it wound down, connecting with Calhoun for a long first down and then with tight end Nicky Dalmolin for a 24-yard touchdown. By half’s end, the receiving group had left its slow start in the past and combined for 162 yards—just 15 yards shy of what the Hokies would accomplish all afternoon.
Having good receivers is one thing—the Blue Devils absolutely do—but knowing how and when to use them is another. Elko, Leonard and offensive coordinator Kevin Johns understood that assignment, and for it, are sure to finish above .500 and continue to give themselves a shot at a top-two finish in the ACC Coastal Division. A year on from an 0-8 record in conference play, that alone is cause for admiration.
“I love those boys,” Leonard said of his receivers. “I got to take them out to dinner or something after that one.”
A dinner well deserved.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.