DEACONS DOWN: Duke football defeats Wake Forest in exciting regular-season finale

Wide receiver Jalon Calhoun led the way for Duke's lethal air attack against Wake Forest.
Wide receiver Jalon Calhoun led the way for Duke's lethal air attack against Wake Forest.

Duke’s regular-season finale against Wake Forest was a heavyweight bout resembling that of a boxing match. There was a certain suspenseful atmosphere that lingered throughout the whole game, heightened by the back-and-forth push. No team ever had complete momentum, as a crushing blow that left one of them stumbling would simply be countered with a haymaker by the other. There was still, however, this sensation that a knockout punch could come at any moment. 

The knockout punch was a two-piece, the first of which came from Sahmir Hagans on a 20-yard touchdown reception from sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard with 2:04 left in the game. That was all Duke needed, as it defended Wallace Wade Stadium one last time on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. In-state rival Wake Forest marched into town to play spoiler, but the Blue Devils pulled off the finale win 34-31, winning eight games for the first time since 2018.

Hagans’ touchdown capped off a 53-second drive that started at Duke’s 35-yard line and took just two plays. It started with a pass interference call on Wake Forest’s Tyler Williams that brought the Blue Devils all the way to the middle of the field. The rest was history after a 30-yard shot to Jalon Calhoun, followed by Hagans' big touchdown reception.

“When we call that play, we know it's a touchdown waiting to happen,” said Hagans on his second touchdown reception. “Like when that play is called, you gotta win. It's either a touchdown or you definitely got to try to score.”

The second punch came from defensive back Darius Joiner, who intercepted Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman in Duke’s territory to regain possession with just 1:22 to go in the game. Once Duke  (8-4, 5-3 in the ACC) secured a first down, the bell rang and it was the last man standing.

Despite a consistently close affair, the Demon Deacons (7-5, 3-5) played catch-up throughout most of the game. Whenever Duke scored, they remained on their heels and within striking distance, waiting for their opportunity to finally pull ahead. They got that opportunity early in the fourth quarter when they took a 31-27 lead at the 12:31 mark. 

After a first half that saw a scoring drive in seven out of nine possessions, the second half started off much sloppier. There were three straight punts and just one first down in the first three drives. Duke regained its fire first, however, pounding Wake Forest with its run game to create an opening for an eventual 30-yard dime from Leonard to Jordan Moore that put the Blue Devils up 27-17. But, just like in quarter two, the same fire that ignited Duke’s offense also woke up the Demon Deacons, who responded just a couple of minutes later with their third touchdown. 

This started off as a game of long, sustained drives. Duke’s first three points came after 11 plays and took nearly eight minutes of offense. Wake Forest followed with a scoring drive of its own that took 11 plays and an additional four minutes off the clock. Neither team was ready to take shots at the other, so it was all about short gains and slow, consistent progression. 

This changed at the 14-minute mark of the second quarter once Leonard set off the first bomb play to Hagans for a 30-yard touchdown to take a 10-3 lead. Leonard came out of the gate firing, completing his first 12 passes and going 29-of-41 on the game with 391 passing yards to go along with four passing touchdowns. Lately, Duke’s offense has been more reliant on the run and Leonard's ability to make plays with his feet, but his arm talent clearly never went away. In Saturday’s win against Wake Forest, it resurfaced, and his throw to Hagans led to a succession of explosions that made for a wild first half.

“Our quarterback was special,” said Elko. “He's had a special year. He's a special competitor. And every time we get big moments he delivers. And, you know, just hats off to him for having the game that he did tonight and executing the way that he did in the throw game.”

Wake Forest started its second drive on a mission, getting down the field faster than either team had been able to up to that point, including three first downs in just four plays. As it got up to Duke’s 33-yard line, it looked like another touchdown to regain the lead was inevitable. However, an intentional grounding penalty by Hartman was all the Blue Devil defense needed to take back control. Defensive back Datrone Young then made a crucial deflection on third-and-19, forcing a Wake Forest punt.

The game had become fast-paced, with quick strikes from both sides. After the Demon Deacons punted, both teams scored on successive possessions spanning just six minutes. This was by virtue of several big plays from dynamic quarterback-receiver combos. The one-two punch of Leonard and Calhoun was on full display, as Leonard slung it deep for a 31-yard completion and then again just two plays later for a 46-yard touchdown. Hartman and Morin Taylor had a show of their own, connecting on 31- and 16-yard completions to set up the eventual touchdown.

Duke punted for the first time with 4:37 left in the second. Wake Forest took full advantage of that opening, marching across the field and tying the game with a field goal. It left too much time in the half, however, as the Blue Devils were able to regain a 20-17 lead with a field goal of their own in just a minute and a half.

“When you play a good team like that on defense, a skilled, defensive back position group, you got to take what the defense gives you,” said Leonard. “That's something I've learned as a quarterback throughout the year. We had a great game plan, we found some holes in their defense, and we were able to execute”

The Blue Devils now look ahead to their first bowl game since 2018 in the coming weeks, their remarkable turnaround season rewarded with an opportunity to play in the postseason. No matter who its final opponent ends up being, one thing is certain—Duke expects to win.


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