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No. 21 Duke football's win against Northwestern wasn't its most exciting, but it showed signs of growth

Freshman running back Peyton Jones stiff-arms a defender in the end zone during Duke's victory against Northwestern.
Freshman running back Peyton Jones stiff-arms a defender in the end zone during Duke's victory against Northwestern.

Last week, Duke played a solid all-around football game against Lafayette. It was a big win, marred by a few small mistakes and a weaker first quarter that allowed the Leopards to sneak back into it before the Blue Devils slammed the door shut. 

This week, there was none of that. No turnovers. No defensive collapses. On Saturday, No. 21 Duke played an even better game than last week against Northwestern in its 38-14 victory, cleaning up what little there was left that needed to be perfected. This was an all-around team win, where every single member made a valuable contribution, getting the starters off the field by the beginning of the fourth quarter and coasting through the end to a never-in-doubt victory.

This was an all-around domination, but the Blue Devils were most in control when it came to the ground attack. The home team rushed for a whopping 268 yards and both high-volume running backs, Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore, averaged more than six yards per carry. Duke controlled the pace of the game throughout, taking long drives and letting the play clock run low on most snaps. 

“That's kind of who we are. We’re trying to run the ball against everybody we play,” said Duke head coach Mike Elko. “That's just kind of our starting point. And that's where the game control comes from.”

The ground game was not limited to the running backs Saturday, either. Junior quarterback Riley Leonard was actually the team’s rushing leader, carrying the ball for 97 yards and averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. Much like his Pop-Tart play of the week from the game against Clemson, Leonard had another highlight-reel moment against the Wildcats when he escaped several tacklers and sped down the field for a 33-yard gain. 

While Leonard did take his first sack of the year late in the second quarter, his legs have bailed him out more than once so far this season. His elusiveness has been incredibly helpful in turning bad plays into good ones.

“He's really athletic. He makes a ton of plays. He's a competitive kid,” Elko said about Leonard. “So it doesn't surprise you but it certainly is impressive and we certainly don't take it for granted the plays that he's able to make with his legs.”

This was an offensively dominant game. Most of the time, that is the case for 38-14 victories. But the defense did its job, too. The first Wildcat touchdown of the game came with just 39 seconds remaining in the first half, and the second came during garbage time with backup players in for both squads. 

The Blue Devils (3-0, 1-0 in the ACC) did not force as many turnovers as they did against Lafayette or Clemson, but the amount of defensive stops Duke recorded erased that difference easily. Northwestern (1-2, 0-1 in the Big Ten) recorded just 267 total yards of offense, and a middling 163 through the air. The Wildcats made it down into the red zone just once in the first half and twice in the second, scoring on two of those trips. That being said, Northwestern converted on 10 of its 18 third-down attempts. That is a number that Elko wants cleaned up, he said.

“I think we're playing good defense when we're on the same page and we're communicating, we're doing the things that we want to do,” Elko said. “It's two games in a row where we have to be a little bit better on third down. I think that's our emphasis and our focus is we've got to be able to get a little bit more pressure we got to be able to cover a little bit longer. We've got to be able to be a little bit more effective and disruptive.”

To many, this game may seem uninspiring — the Blue Devils came into a game in which they were heavily favored, and marched out of Wallace Wade Stadium with a blowout victory. 

But for Duke, this game was supposed to be just that — uninspiring. Everything went according to plan. The Blue Devils did all the little things they needed to do to win. They avoided turnovers, smoothed out the first quarter and played an even more comprehensive game against the Wildcats than they did against the Leopards.

Now, Elko’s crew will have one more week to tune up the game plan against a weaker UConn  squad before another big matchup. No. 9 Notre Dame comes to town in just two weeks’ time, and if the early season is any indication the Fighting Irish will put up as big a fight as anyone when they march into Durham. 


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