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Column: Duke football is the real deal. But the true test is on its way

Duke's offensive line rushes forward to block Northwestern's defense.
Duke's offensive line rushes forward to block Northwestern's defense.

As you probably know already, it has been quite a year for head coach Mike Elko’s team so far. 

No. 18 Duke is undefeated on the season, outscoring opponents by a combined margin of 108-28. The Blue Devils are climbing in the rankings, and getting more national attention than they have in years past. On Monday, it was announced that their upcoming game against No. 9 Notre Dame will get a prime time slot, broadcasting on ABC at 7:30 that evening. There is a non-zero chance that ESPN’s College Gameday will be coming to Durham for the showdown if the Fighting Irish beat No. 6 Ohio State this weekend. 

All that said, there are still plenty of reasons to temper expectations about this team. The Blue Devils have only played one opponent who was ranked at the time of the game: a Clemson team that has since fallen out of the AP top 25. Besides that, the level of competition has been relatively low. Duke beat Lafayette — an FCS team with a weak track record and a carousel of inconsistent starting quarterbacks — and Northwestern, a program that was in a rut for several years even before allegations of hazing rocked the team in the offseason. 

To put it bluntly, the last two wins have been very convincing, but they have not been against good teams. This week will likely be similar. UConn is 0-3 on the season, and the Huskies have been unable to put up more than 17 points in a game this year. 

Now if you have read some of my other pieces in recent weeks, you might think you know where I tend to go from here. 

Thesis: Duke is pretty good, but still not great. Evidence: The Blue Devils have not come up against a truly high-level team yet this season, and Clemson dropped out of the rankings a few weeks after the loss and is clearly in a down year. Conclusion: Elko’s good-but-not-great team will get stomped next week when the Fighting Irish come to Durham and remind Duke that it is first and foremost a basketball school.

But this time, I’ll be the Duke football optimist. I’m here to say that the wins against the Leopards and Wildcats were demonstrative of more than some might be willing to admit, and that the Blue Devils are absolutely trending in the right direction to challenge Notre Dame in a few weeks. Elko’s group has had the chance to develop its identity against teams where there was more room for error, and will likely be coming into the matchup against the Fighting Irish 4-0 and with plenty of confidence and poise. Let’s start with a quick game-by-game recap of the two weeks between the Clemson win and now.

It was clear in the first quarter of the game against Lafayette that the Blue Devils were a little leggy from the victory against the Tigers. The defense was slow and unresponsive and the offense struggled after driving down the field to score seven on its first trip. It was, to an extent, understandable. Duke was probably a little too relaxed and was playing on short rest after one of the biggest wins in recent program history, one that resulted in the first field-storming since 2013. 

Whatever Elko said at the end of the first quarter clearly reminded his team that a loss to Lafayette would count the same as one to Clemson. The Blue Devils rebounded through the final three periods, not allowing the Leopards back into the red zone and racking up 35 unanswered points en route to a blowout win. In the process, the hosts tallied 261 rushing yards and a combined zero incompletions in 20 attempts between quarterbacks Riley Leonard and Henry Belin IV. 

Against Northwestern, the door was slammed even sooner. While the Wildcats did manage to put up more points than either of Duke’s other two opponents, the Blue Devils played an incredibly complete game. Leonard rushed for 97 yards and threw for another 219 as Duke ran away 38-14. While the margin was tighter, the game itself was as clean as anyone could ask for. The Blue Devils played entirely turnover-free for the first time this season and punted just once. 

In these past two games, the Blue Devils have had the time and space to figure out what kind of game they want to play. Now, the plan seems clear: Duke is going to run up and down the field. Elko is going to control the football, the clock and thus the flow of the game. Leonard is going to turn disastrous plays into incredible, or even serviceable, ones. The defense is going to bend, but not break, and the Blue Devils will live and die by the turnover margin. 

In short, the two most recent games and the one against UConn this Saturday are each important in their own way. While the scores were lopsided, the Blue Devils smoothed out whatever rough edges remained, figuring out what worked and what didn’t. The Huskies will be the final opportunity for a tune-up. 

Then, the gauntlet begins. The Irish come to town in less than two weeks, and not long after Duke will head south to play against a terrifyingly good Florida State team. From there, big matchups against Louisville, Wake Forest and North Carolina will follow. 

The Blue Devils know what kind of football they want to play. Against the Leopards and Wildcats, they have learned how to play the very best version of it. It remains to be seen if Duke can execute against a true top team, but the odds look better than they have ever before. 


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