To say it has been an eventful week for head coach Mike Elko’s No. 21 Duke team would be an understatement. The Monday night upset win against then-No. 9 Clemson was the program’s first against a top-10 team since 1989, and the Blue Devils (1-0, 1-0 in the ACC) find themselves ranked in the AP Poll for the first time since a one-week residency in 2018.
The group from Durham cannot rest on its laurels for long, however. A new test, albeit one that will likely be less difficult, is coming to town Saturday. Duke will host Lafayette (1-0) in Wallace Wade Stadium at 6 p.m.
The Leopards are an interesting group. Last year after starting quarterback Ryan Schuster went down with a season-ending injury, head coach John Troxell rotated several players through the starting spot. Ultimately, it did not go so well. Lafayette went 4-7 overall, averaging an uninspiring 12.6 points and just 225.6 yards of offensive production per game.
This year has been a little kinder to the Leopards thus far. They took their first game of the season against Sacred Heart 19-14, as running back Jamar Curtis picked up 181 yards on the ground and another 18 through the air. But Duke will provide a new level of challenge to a group that still often struggles to produce offensively. Let’s get into it.
On offense, Curtis is the primary threat for Lafayette. His aforementioned 199 all-purpose yards against the Pioneers made him the team’s motor, especially considering the bizarre quarterback situation for this group. Schuster has been named the starter again this year, but had a subpar first outing. He threw for only 40 yards at a 50% completion rate, and actually averaged minus-1.7 yards of rushing per attempt in his season debut.
Given that the quarterbacks appear relatively weak for the Leopards, the Blue Devil defense should focus primarily on stopping the run and preventing short passes. Linebackers can sit in the gaps in the line and wait for the inside run, bringing pressure to the pocket when necessary. Schuster’s longest passing play of the season thus far is just 11 yards, and the longest of his career is 40. Duke should not stress too much about covering the deep ball, and thus will be able to bring more pressure up front. That being said, there also is not much film on this group. Troxell is in just his second year, and has been hard at work redesigning the team’s identity.
“They're in year two also. And so there's not a ton of film on who these guys are and what they're all about,” said Elko in his midweek media availability, “In one game, we were able to get into some of the stuff from last year, but I think they've kind of reestablished their identity a little bit”
On defense, Lafayette brings a little more to the table. Namely, the Leopards have Preseason All-Patriot League Team selection Marco Olivas. The senior linebacker has been a key piece of the Lafayette defense for several years now. Last season, he recorded 92 total tackles, including 53 solo takedowns. Olivas also recorded 2.5 sacks last year, and will be looking to add to that total in the 2023 campaign. The Blue Devils should gameplan for Olivas, making sure there is always a blocker in front of him. Otherwise, it will be a rough day for junior quarterback Riley Leonard and the rest of the offense.
Ultimately, it is difficult to see this game going anywhere other than into the win column for Duke. Lafayette is not a bad team, but the talent mismatch is significant. The Blue Devils are bigger, stronger and faster than the Leopards. The away team might have something to prove after a tough season last year, but Duke will likely be too much to handle for this Lafayette group. If the Blue Devils play their brand of football and avoid complacency after the victory against Clemson, this will probably be one of the most straightforward games they play this year.
“I want us to come out there and play like we're supposed to, I want us to take the field and represent Duke with pride,” said Elko, “I want us to take advantage of the fact that we only get 12 of these opportunities a year, and this is one of them.”
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