RUNNING WILD: No. 21 Duke football races past Northwestern behind dominant rushing game

Quarterback Riley Leonard (13) steps into the end zone against Northwestern.
Quarterback Riley Leonard (13) steps into the end zone against Northwestern.

When these two teams faced off a year ago, Duke jumped out to a three-score lead in the first half. Northwestern fought back and closed the gap to five, before the Blue Devils escaped Evanston, Ill., with an eight-point victory. 

Once again, Duke took a three-score advantage early, but this time, it left no doubt. 

On Saturday afternoon at Wallace Wade Stadium, the 21st-ranked Blue Devils defeated the Wildcats 38-14 to remain undefeated through their opening three-game homestand, playing a complete four quarters on both sides of the ball. 

“It was a good day," said head coach Mike Elko. "It was a good win for us going to 3-0 and I was happy with the way we played today."

For the better part of the first half, Northwestern could not find any offensive rhythm, and quarterback Ben Bryant struggled to move the ball down the field. However, the Wildcats got on the scoreboard after a well-balanced drive — including some snaps at quarterback by sophomore Jack Lausch — culminating with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Bryant to A.J. Henning in the final minute of the half. 

Duke (3-0, 1-0 in the ACC) dominated the half statistically, out-gaining Northwestern (1-2, 0-1 in the Big Ten) 238-106 in total yardage and not punting the ball once. However, the Wildcats entered the locker room with momentum, sacking junior quarterback Riley Leonard for the first time all season and only down 10 points, 17-7.

“I thought we had a little bit of a lull on defense on that drive and could have made a couple plays to get off the field,” said Elko. “So I challenged our guys in the locker room to come out and finish this thing in the third quarter, and we certainly did that.” 

The Blue Devils immediately squashed the increased energy from the Northwestern sideline with a balanced nine-play, 80-yard drive, as Leonard called his own number to punch in the touchdown, and Duke never looked back. A big strike between Leonard and redshirt senior receiver Jalon Calhoun jumpstarted the following Blue Devil possession and once again, the signal caller waltzed into the endzone as Duke led 31-7 with three minutes remaining in the third quarter. 

For the second-straight game, Leonard had a very efficient day. The Fairhope, Ala., native was 15-for-20 for 219 yards and, still, three games in, has yet to throw an interception. Backup signal caller Henry Belin IV also entered the contest with just over nine minutes left the fourth quarter. 

While the Blue Devil defense had only surrendered 14 points total in the first two games of the season, the rushing defense was not up to its standards from a season ago. Through those games, Duke was 10th in the league giving up 169.5 yards per game, a contrast from last year’s 120.9 — good for fourth.

However, Saturday was a different story. In key moments, the front seven came up big with its experience and talent. The Blue Devils allowed 104 rushing yards, and while the defense once again showcased its ability to limit opposing scoring, this was the most dominant performance by defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci’s unit yet. 

During the first drive of the game, Bryant was stuffed on a third-and-1 run by redshirt senior defensive lineman DeWayne Carter and sophomore Vincent Anthony Jr., forcing the Wildcats to punt. Following this, a Kendall Johnson sack stifled Northwestern’s first sustained drive of the afternoon, leading to another Wildcat punt. In particular, senior linebacker Dorian Mausi was flying across the field, finishing with a team-high 10 tackles. 

“We're playing good defense when we're on the same page and we're communicating and doing the things that we want to do,” said Elko. “I think we're playing good against the run when we're sound and we're fitting things the way we need to and I think we have the ability to make plays on the football.”

This strong defensive performance concluded with an interception by graduate cornerback Myles Jones, his second on the year, and second in consecutive games. 

The trenches were also important for Duke’s offense. It was clear that the rushing attack was the focal point, and a balanced backfield including graduate Jordan Waters, junior Jaquez Moore and even Leonard gained 268 combined yards. Freshman Peyton Jones also joined the action in the second half, recording his first career touchdown in the fourth quarter following the Jones interception. 

“We wanted to establish our physical identity and anytime you play a Big 10 team that's really really important — to make sure that you control the line of scrimmage,” said Elko. “We were able to outrun them 268-104, both of our running backs had over six yards per carry. I think when you have stat lines like that, you're gonna have really successful days.”

On the Blue Devils’ first possession of the game, the offense methodically drove down the field, capped by a 24-yard touchdown run by Waters to open the scoring. He struck again with a two-yard rush early in the second quarter, expanding Duke’s lead to 14-0. 

“We try to run the ball against everybody we play and that's just our starting point, and that's where the game control comes from,” said Elko. 

The playmakers on Duke’s offense consistently gained yardage even after first contact. Moore had back-to-back 15-yard rushes that did not have immediate openings. Following this possession, Leonard escaped pressure and bursted for 33-yards, akin to his scramble touchdown in the third quarter against Clemson. His elusiveness was on display throughout, and he ran for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Leonard also crossed the 1000-yard rushing mark, the sixth quarterback in program history to achieve the feat. 

“He’s the ultimate eraser,” said Elko. “Anytime you have one of those, he makes a lot of bad plays look really good sometimes, but that's who he is. It certainly is impressive and we certainly don't take it for granted the plays that he's able to make with his legs.”

“I think we've given up two sacks this year and a lot of that goes to him,” said graduate offensive lineman Jacob Monk. “You know how mobile he is and how well he gets rid of the ball so he's really great to block for.”

Up next, the Blue Devils will travel for the first time this season as they face UConn at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. 

Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Sports Editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and sports editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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