The Blue Devils have begun the 2023 season red-hot with no indication of slowing down. For the second-straight season under head coach Mike Elko, Duke football has started off 3-0, with its most recent victory a commanding one against Northwestern. For their first away game of the season, the Blue Devils take on UConn in their penultimate contest before main conference play.
As with its last two contests, Duke heads into East Hartford, Conn., as a heavy favorite. On Saturday, the two squads will play each other for the first time since 2007.
Here are five things to know before the 3:30 p.m. kickoff:
Run the rock
Against the Wildcats last Saturday, the Blue Devils were dominant in the run game early and often, starting with an exciting house call by graduate student Jordan Waters for the first score of the game. Duke’s rushing attack was potent, as the team racked up 268 yards and five scores on the ground, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. At his weekly press conference Monday, Elko said that “at the end of the day, it’s about imposing your will on the team you’re playing and if we can run the ball for six yards a carry … there’s not a lot that can go wrong.”
With this vote of confidence, look for Duke’s offense to rely on its three-headed ground game of quarterback Riley Leonard, Waters and junior Jaquez Moore to impose this dominance against a shaky UConn run defense.
Embrace physical play
Elko regarded tight end Nicky Dalmolin as one of Duke’s best offensive players last Saturday, even as the senior recorded just three catches for 37 yards. But how did he make up the difference? According to Elko, run blocking. As a 6-foot-4, 241-pound player, Dalmolin had “by far and away his most physical game” Elko said, contributing to several long runs through his blocking.
On offense, Dalmolin and linemen such as Jake Hornibrook and All-ACC left tackle Graham Barton can buoy the run game to Elko’s expectations. On defense, 6-foot-3, 305-pound tackle DeWayne Carter will lead the way in the trenches against the Huskies. Duke’s physical roster should bear bad news for UConn, especially with Carter having a favorable matchup against the Huskies’ interior offensive line.
Thanks to the game script against the Wildcats, Leonard didn’t have to shoulder a large burden in the passing game, and his receivers made it even easier. Redshirt senior wideout Jalon Calhoun stole the spotlight in the receiving corps, catching five passes for 112 yards. Many of those yards came after the catch, too, with Calhoun utilizing expert juking moves late in the first quarter on a 34-yard catch-and-run. Overall, nearly half of Leonard’s 219 passing yards were gained after the ball was in his receiver’s hands. With expert maneuvering from a talented group of receivers, Duke can diversify its offense, even after the catch, against the Huskies.
Elko said Monday that “our defense is heavy on linebacker and safety,” and it’s easy to see why. Duke’s defense is currently letting up 4.4 yards per play, the fourth-best mark in the ACC, with its back seven contributing nicely. In particular, the second-year head coach gave flowers to linebacker Dorian Mausi for becoming “more physical as a tackler [this season] and safety Jeremiah Lewis for his toughness through injury.
UConn’s offensive attack relies on both quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson and halfback Devontae Houston, who will both inevitably be challenged by a bend-but-don’t-break linebacking corps and a potent secondary. With a dominant performance, Duke’s defense looks to keep the ACC on notice.
Set the road tone
Speaking of sending messages, the significance of the Blue Devils’ first away game hasn’t been lost on Elko. “We’ve got to find a way to play consistent football on the road, which we didn’t always do at times last year,” he said.
Indeed, Duke went .500 in away games last season, a mark of growing pains in a new era.
As with the rest of its schedule, Duke cannot underestimate UConn, but opposite records — 3-0 versus 0-3 — and seemingly opposite trajectories give the Blue Devils a chance to make a statement away from Wallace Wade Stadium. With a win, the Blue Devils would start their season 4-0 for the first time since 2018.
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