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Extra point: Elite red-zone defense, Leonard's heroics lead Duke football to opening victory

Junior quarterback Riley Leonard threw for 175 yards and rushed for 98 in Duke's win against Clemson.
Junior quarterback Riley Leonard threw for 175 yards and rushed for 98 in Duke's win against Clemson.

In its first game of the season, Duke came away with a massive upset victory against then-No. 9 Clemson at home. The Blue Zone is here to break down the performance with three takeaways, stats and a look ahead: 

Three key takeaways

1. Two halves

The first half was rough for Duke. Sloppy plays, including several dropped balls and a muffed punt kept promising drives from making it into the end zone. While the Blue Devils opened the scoring with two field goals, the Tigers posted their only points of the game in the first half, after the muffed punt set up a short-field touchdown. The second half, however, was all Duke. The Blue Devils exploded on both sides of the ball, racking up three touchdowns, a two-point conversion and several goal-line stops. Winning the turnover battle in the latter period was a huge factor for head coach Mike Elko’s group.

2. Protect the passer

Clemson, a team that in years past has been known for a powerful core of defensive linemen, did not record a single sack against Duke. There are a few reasons for that sort of discrepancy. For one, the Blue Devil offensive line played very well. Veteran right guard Graham Barton held his own against some powerful edge rushers, and the interior stayed together well enough to buy junior quarterback Riley Leonard some time. Additionally, Leonard was willing to throw the ball away and avoid the loss if pressure was coming. He also used his legs to stay clear of blitzing linemen, scoring a massive rushing touchdown after escaping what looked like a sure sack. 

3. Bend, don’t break

There were several points throughout the game where things looked dire for the Duke defense. The Tigers were knocking at the metaphorical door multiple times. And yet, the Blue Devils managed to keep Clemson out of the end zone in the second half. The Tigers ended up in the red zone five times, and scored on just one of those trips. Twice, Duke forced fumbles near the goal line to take control of the ball and get the defense off the field. That gave the offense some much needed breathing room and allowed Leonard to establish a more comfortable lead. 

Three key stats

1. 199 rushing yards

One other strategic choice the Blue Devils made was the decision to mostly attack via the running game. Duke’s strong offensive line opened up gaps for running backs and Leonard to burst through and gain significant yardage. In the end, the home team racked up 199 rushing yards, compared to just 175 in the air. Keeping the ball on the ground also ran time off the clock as the Blue Devils held on to the win. 

2. Two blocked field goals

Twice, Clemson sat well within field-goal range and was looking to put three more points on the board. Twice, Duke blocked the attempts. In a game that was incredibly close in the first half, the Blue Devils giving up one of those field goals would have been consequential. Instead, special teams pulled through for Elko. Those blocks gave the rest of the team something to rally around and helped to build momentum towards offensive production. Without those blocks, the final score of this game would likely look very different. 

3. 114 rushing yards for Will Shipley

While much of the Clemson offense struggled Monday night, junior workhorse running back Will Shipley did not. He was the dominant force on offense for the Tigers, racking up 114 rushing yards along with 29 more in the air. Shipley was an explosive runner out of the backfield, and it often took two or three Duke defenders to bring him to the ground. While quarterback Cade Klubnik could have had a better game, Shipley was a potent offensive force and a big reason why Clemson was in this game at all. 

Looking ahead

Next up, the Blue Devils will face a less talented team than the Tigers as Lafayette comes to town Saturday. The Leopards opened their season with a 19-14 win against Sacred Heart, but will be dealing with a much stronger team in Duke. That being said, the Blue Devils cannot rest on their laurels and will need to stay sharp as Elko looks to bring his team to a 2-0 record to start his second season.


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