In win against Clemson, Duke football's defense proves that it can stand firm — even against the country's best

Senior safety Jaylen Stinson lays out for a tackle during Duke's Monday night win against Clemson.
Senior safety Jaylen Stinson lays out for a tackle during Duke's Monday night win against Clemson.

“God is good, and so was our defense.”

Clemson, the program known for its offensive powerhouses, for producing Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, DeAndre Hopkins and Travis Etienne, scored seven points against Duke Monday night. Those seven were scored after a Jalon Calhoun muffed punt that placed the Tigers on the Blue Devils’ 18-yard line in the second quarter. Those were the only seven that Clemson scored in 60 minutes, despite holding 33:33 of possession. 

Through offensive miscues and shaky hands, Duke got its act together in the second half, scoring 22 unanswered points to top the ninth-ranked Tigers. A mere 175 yards through the air and a 51.5% completion percentage from junior quarterback Riley Leonard was enough — more than enough — to give the Blue Devils the win. 

But why?

As Leonard put it, “God is good, and so was our defense.”

Head coach Mike Elko and defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci put on a masterclass in red-zone stops and bend-don’t-break defense. Two sacks, six tackles-for-loss, two forced fumbles and a whopping 94 tackles later, Clemson’s 422 yards of offense were reduced to a measly little seven on the scoreboard. 

While the stars did their job, it was a team effort on all fronts. 

“I hope people noticed how much we rotated,” Elko said. 21 players contributed to that tackle tally with Chandler Rivers, Tre Freeman and Jeremiah Lewis each leading the way with 11. Next up was safety Jaylen Stinson with nine; the senior also scooped up a Phil Mafah fumble and returned it for 55 yards, setting up Jaquez Moore’s rushing touchdown. 

“Stinson’s a dog,” redshirt-senior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said of his teammate. “Kid is every bit of 5-foot-6, 180, when he might be the hardest hit on the field.” 

Stinson’s official 5-foot-8, 177-pound stature exemplifies what Elko’s program is all about: fight.  

“That was one of the big things that people asked me when I got here was, ‘will this team compete? Will this team fight? Will this team play hard for four quarters?’ Absolutely yes," Elko said. "They will not lay down.”

Duke’s red-zone defense showed just that. Even when backed deep into their own zone like they were on their last three defensive series of the third quarter into the fourth, the Blue Devils fought for every yard, every play, every second. With Clemson on the 6-yard-line with four downs to convert, Duke held its line. 

Tiger kicker Robert Dunn III’s 23-yard attempt? Blocked. Less than four minutes later, Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik, on first down at the 7-yard line, fumbled the handoff. The Blue Devils recovered. After another Duke offensive three-and-out, on its own 1-yard line, Anthony Nelson Jr. punched the ball out of Mafah’s hands, and Stinson scooped it up. When the offense faltered, the defense picked up the pieces. 

“What gives me the most confidence is how my defense is playing and how everybody else around me is playing,” Leonard said. 

Clemson, with its new quarterback and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, posed a unique opening day challenge for Elko and Santucci. The Tigers outscored their opponents by 12.4 points per game last year before bringing in Riley, who spent last season at TCU and the two before that at soon-to-be-ACC school SMU. With no idea what to expect from an offense that boasts preseason All-ACC running back Will Shipley and is led by then-single-game starter Klubnik, Santucci dug into the past. 

“He watched three years worth of Garrett Riley,” Elko said of Santucci’s preparation, an amount he later clarified as “probably a lot.” 

“I think we had our kids really well prepared for what we were going to see without really truly knowing what that was really going to be about,” Elko said. 

What they saw was Shipley, and a lot of him. The running back totaled 143 all-purpose yards and hauled in the lone touchdown of the day. He had 17 touches and six receptions, proving early and often that he has earned his preseason acclaim. However, Shipley’s efforts weren’t enough to avoid the upset. Duke’s defense held strong where it mattered, and just less than three-and-a-half hours after kickoff, it had defeated the No. 9 team in the nation. 

“We're not happy because we proved people wrong. We're happy because we proved ourselves right,” Carter said. 

The Blue Devils will have at least 11 more chances to do just that. 

Rachael Kaplan profile
Rachael Kaplan | Sports Managing Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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