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'Finish it': Behind Leonard, receivers, Duke football closes regular season on high note against Wake Forest

Riley Leonard engineered a game-winning drive for Duke late against Wake Forest.
Riley Leonard engineered a game-winning drive for Duke late against Wake Forest.

In October’s home matchup against North Carolina, Duke offensive lineman Andre Harris Jr. was whistled for a 15-yard personal foul, a penalty that negated a Jalon Calhoun touchdown that would have sealed the game for the Blue Devils. This setback led to a Charlie Ham missed field goal, and North Carolina marched down the field for the win on the next possession. 

Saturday’s game against Wake Forest looked like it might end the same for Duke, as Graham Barton committed a hold that wiped out what would have been a 34-yard Riley Leonard rushing touchdown. Four plays later, Leonard was intercepted in the end zone, seemingly erasing Duke’s momentum in the fourth quarter. But on Senior Day, head coach Mike Elko’s team finally got over the hump against a marquee opponent, coming away with a 34-31 victory

The win displayed that Duke can put together all three phases, and contributions from players both old and young were necessary for Duke to end the regular season on a high note. In particular, all three starting wideouts had monster days, from redshirt freshman Sahmir Hagans to the senior Calhoun. Calhoun and Hagans both set career-highs with 174 and 139 yards, respectively. Duke needed every yard from the duo Saturday, as the Blue Devil receiver room was left extremely thin after the season-ending injury to Eli Pancol. Hagans was the next man up after Pancol, and he came through in a big way for Duke, accounting for two of its touchdowns. 

"To our wide receivers, Jalon Calhoun had a huge night, Sahmir Hagans has a huge night and makes two critical catches to win us the football game, the touchdown," Elko said after the game. "And then obviously the one that runs the clock out. Jordan Moore continues to make plays. And we've gotten banged up over there on offense."

When two receivers have career nights in the same game, talk about the guy throwing them the football usually follows, and Duke’s gunslinger deserves praise for his performance Saturday.

Leonard continued his breakout season with a masterful game in the regular-season finale, passing for a career-high 391 yards and four touchdowns to boot. His lone interception does place a slight blemish on his game, but it came after another touchdown of his was called back. Whenever Duke was in a tough spot, the sophomore quarterback delivered. He had two passing touchdowns on third-and-long and showed no hesitancy in taking shots to his talented receiver trio. This kind of game from Leonard was needed for the Blue Devils in order to keep pace with one of the top offenses in the conference, especially since the run game was not as dominant as Duke fans have grown accustomed to this season. 

Coming into Saturday’s contest, much of the attention was focused on redshirt junior Sam Hartman, Wake Forest’s star quarterback. In all fairness, Hartman absolutely gave the Demon Deacons a chance as he threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns. But when the clock struck zero, Duke’s unheralded quarterback came out on top. 

"Everyone was going to talk about the other team's guy and listen, Sam is phenomenal and Sam is a warrior," Elko said. "And he's done some amazing things on the college football field. And he'll be remembered at Wake Forest as one of the greatest quarterbacks they've ever had. But our kid's pretty good, and our kid's pretty competitive. And every single time that you guys make these matchups about the other guy, [Leonard] responds, and today we were able to respond and finish it.”

Although they came out on top, the Blue Devils missed multiple chances to put the game away earlier. Most notably, a reversed fumble recovery by Brandon Johnson was a play that Duke would have loved to go its way. Additionally, linebacker Cam Dillon dropped an interception in the red zone, a miscue that led to a Hartman touchdown directly after. Despite these unfortunate breaks, Duke's defense did not hang their heads, even with an elite offense bearing down on them. 

At the end of the game, this repeated effort finally paid dividends. With just more than three minutes remaining and the Demon Deacons leading 31-27, the Blue Devils desperately needed a third-down stop to give their offense a chance to go win the game. They got that stop, with the veteran duo of Shaka Heyward and DeWayne Carter combining for a massive sack that allowed Leonard to get the ball back before finding Hagans for the game-winning score. On Wake Forest’s last offensive possession, Duke came with the knockout blow, as a Darius Joiner interception stifled the Demon Deacons when it mattered the most. 

"We knew it would be a team effort," Carter said of Duke's late-game defensive efforts. "It’s funny … I end up tackling him, but it’s truly a team rush and whoever gets luckiest gets the tackle."

Joiner's interception did not quite end the game, as Wake Forest had three timeouts and 1:22 left to get the ball back and give Hartman another chance. With the run game struggling, Duke elected to throw, and Hagans came through with a game-sealing reception. 

"That play call is really a read in your defense," Hagans said. "We were thinking about running but they gave us the pass option and Riley gave me a strike."

With Duke finally getting a win against a high-level team in the ACC, Elko has finished off a strong case to be ACC Coach of the Year. 

"If he’s not," Carter said, "I don’t know who’s voting."


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