Not all football games are like the one Duke played against Clemson Monday. Sometimes, they are simple. Sometimes, the better team shows up and coasts to a win. That is exactly what the 21st-ranked Blue Devils did in their second game of the season.
While the Saturday evening game against Lafayette might not have been a primetime showing against a ranked team, this one still proved an important point: This Duke group is capable of showing up on short rest and doing the little things that lead to a big win.
It would have been very easy for the Blue Devils to get lazy, to make sloppy plays, to not take this game seriously. After all, this is the team that upset the Tigers in Week 1. Instead, Duke showed up, tuned out the noise and played what can only be described as a clean game of football.
“We learned that our drive has to be internal. And that's something that we talk all the time about,” said head coach Mike Elko. “If we allow outside things to influence what we think about ourselves, how we prepare what we think we have to do to get ready to be successful in a game, those things will kill your season.”
The Blue Devils (2-0, 1-0 in the ACC) pounded the ball on the ground, made the easy plays and limited mistakes. Riley Leonard went 12-for-12 through the air, not missing a single pass. Even his backup, Henry Belin IV, threw a perfect game. The redshirt freshman completed all eight of his attempts. The only turnover came in the first quarter, when running back Jordan Waters had the ball stripped from him.
Fumbles can be demoralizing at times, as a game’s momentum shifts in an instant. But this Duke group kept its composure after Waters lost the ball. The defense forced another three-and-out from Lafayette (1-1, 1-0 in the Patriot League), and Waters went on to rush for a career-high 112 yards.
“Oh yeah, that's a part of the game, dumb things happen,” Waters said. “We throw picks, we fumble, other teams score. You just have to have a quick turnaround and go out and execute.”
The defense was similarly clean. The Blue Devils allowed just one touchdown for the second time this season, on Lafayette’s first drive of the game. After that, the Leopards never even made it back into the red zone. While the early score for Lafayette kept the Leopards in the game during the opening stages, it also served as a wake-up call for the Duke defense.
“I felt like it was just us coming together … and playing our brand of defense that we know how to play, not really worrying about all the other things going around,” said senior linebacker Dorian Mausi on bouncing back after the early touchdown.
While the starters did a good job of setting the Blue Devils up for success with the first half scoring and dominant play on both sides of the ball, the bench players who came in during the third and fourth quarters played very impressively to slam the door shut. Leading the charge was Belin, who threw for 118 yards with that 100% completion rate. Other smaller names that had an impact Saturday night were running backs Peyton Jones and Quran Boyd, who rushed for a total of 51 yards between them. That depth is something that Duke prides itself on, and the next man up mentality means that even when a starter goes down, the backup plays at the same level.
“We call ourselves the stable,” Waters said. “We have more than one horse and we pride ourselves on having depth in our room. Whenever one goes in there's no drop off between each back and we pride ourselves on that”
There’s no other way to put it. The Blue Devils played a comprehensive, straightforward, effective game. Every man up and down the depth chart showed up to prove that Duke knows how to ignore all the outside buzz and show up to win. Even against an FCS squad in a game that was not as hyped as the season opener, the Blue Devils played and won with their brand of football. The next challenge is to do something similar next weekend when Northwestern comes to town.
“We're going to have more tough turnarounds, we're gonna have more games where we're the team that's getting hunted and someone's coming in trying to make their season off of beating us,” Elko said. “All of those things are a little bit new to this group and so each one of these is just an opportunity to live and learn and get better.”
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