WEEK WON: Duke football explodes in second half, thrashes Clemson in season opener

Duke students stormed the field after the Blue Devils' win against Clemson — their first top-10 win since 1989.
Duke students stormed the field after the Blue Devils' win against Clemson — their first top-10 win since 1989.

Apex predators are called such for a reason — challenges to their dominance are rare, and most end poorly. 

On Monday night, the Blue Devils broke the animal kingdom’s governing truth.

Under the Labor Day lights at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke pulled off the remarkable against No. 9 Clemson, riding a gritty defensive performance and a vibrant home crowd to a statement 28-7 win against a team billed by many as a playoff contender. 

"It's a testimony to what you can accomplish if you put yourselves together and you're willing to give a lot to an organization," said head coach Mike Elko. "These kids work so hard, they put so much into this thing. And they just continue to fight and come together to be successful."

But it wasn’t straightforward, nor was it clean. Aside from some exceptional running by Clemson running back Will Shipley — who logged 114 yards for one touchdown — no offensive player on either team played particularly well, with dropped passes, closed running lanes and missed field goals seemingly more common than smooth drives down the field.

It was Duke (1-0) that took advantage.

The Blue Devils rushed out of the gothic gates at the end of their on-field tunnel hoping to get chugging and turn their ample first-half opportunities into tangible second-half scores.

And the wheels got churning.

Graduate defensive end Anthony Nelson rocked Clemson running back Phil Mafah right at the Duke doorstep and opened the door for senior safety Jaylen Stinson to pick up the fumble to rush all the way to the Tigers’ 34-yard line and kick-start another Blue Devil drive. Junior running back Jaquez Moore marauded his way to the house, and redshirt-senior wideout Jalon Calhoun’s reception at the goal line sealed a two-point conversion to avenge past faults and bump his team up 21-7.

In the opening minutes of the second half, several sets of Tiger hands reached at quarterback Riley Leonard and looked to drag the junior down behind his line on third down, but he escaped their grasps to sprint down the sideline and into the end zone for Duke’s first six-pointer of the night.

Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik and Mafah linked up for a 49-yard surge almost immediately, though, and the Tigers (0-1) found themselves on the doorstep of Duke’s end zone once more. But a false start call and a deep sack by Anthony Nelson forced them to settle for three. Or, at least, an attempt for three.

Clemson kicker Robert Gunn III’s attempt shot too low for the second time Monday evening, and the Blue Devils got the ball back with a chance to make it a two-score game.

While Duke didn’t do that right away, a mistake on the Tigers’ behalf gave it some breathing room to try again. Klubnik was thrust under pressure by the Blue Devil defensive line, taking a big hit which forced the rock out of his hands. Duke recovered the loose ball but couldn’t do much more, sending the ball back Clemson’s way after another three-and-out.

"If you just look at it, right, in the in the first half, we got down there twice, we didn't score touchdowns, we lost the turnover battle two to nothing, then you go into halftime and we're losing," Elko said. "Then the second half comes around, we win the turnover battle. We don't allow them to score touchdowns in the red zone. We score touchdowns in the red zone, and we win the second half, what, 22 to nothing?"

This rapid back-and-forth was perhaps a just reward for a tar-laden first half in which neither team could really get going. Duke was arguably the better of the two in the opening stages, at least until some unfortunate bobbles swung the pendulum away from it before it could solidify a lead.

The first, and most consequential, was when Calhoun fumbled an awkwardly bouncing punt at his own 18-yard line to set the Tigers up for an easy shot at the end zone. The Blue Devils held firm for downs one and two, but a shovel pass from Klubnik found Shipley for an open lane and the game’s first touchdown.

The second bobble: Leonard set his offense up just shy of field goal range with 17 seconds left in the first half, but slippery hands felled Moore, too, who surrendered the ball and let Clemson enter the locker room with a one-point lead.

So how did the Blue Devils keep it tight early on, despite their oily gloves? Locktight defense.

With Leonard struggling for accuracy — he was 12-for-24 by the halftime break — and Duke’s run game sputtering at points, the likes of graduate safety Jeremiah Lewis and redshirt senior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter proved crucial in keeping the team competitive. This was especially true against Shipley, who threw the kitchen sink, fridge, stove and microwave at it throughout the game.

"We believe in our conditioning, we believe in our physicality, we believe that we know how to execute in those areas of the field," Elko said. "We certainly would prefer not to be down there as much as we were, but those plays ultimately won us the football game."

The Blue Devils got going early against the Tigers, forcing a punt inside the opening three minutes and then taking it deep into the opposing half before redshirt sophomore wideout Sahmir Hagans was judged to have fumbled the ball. The officials reversed that decision, setting up a Duke first down at Clemson’s 24-yard line, which culminated in Pelino’s opening field goal after a few misses by Leonard in the air.

The Tigers responded almost immediately, riding a series of rushes by Shipley to two successive first downs and the legs and arm of Klubnik far into Duke territory. A pair of stops behind the line of scrimmage — and a diving tackle by sophomore corner Chandler Rivers just past it — sent out the Clemson field goal unit. Gunn lined up his kick, but high hands by the Blue Devil defensive line got to it fast, sending the ball bouncing harmlessly short of the posts.

Duke and Clemson traded three-and-outs after the missed field goal, but Leonard’s arm once again produced fireworks. A creative run from a dodging Calhoun moved the chains, which was immediately built on by a 28-yard pass to Moore, positioning the Blue Devils for another Pelino field goal.

As the Tigers looked to rally at the game’s close, an errant pass from Klubnik was popped up and hauled in by senior linebacker Dorian Mausi. Duke ball at the Clemson 47-yard line, five minutes on the clock and hundreds of Clemson fans making their way toward the exits. Jordan Waters trucked 36 yards to the house, and Wallace Wade exploded into Blue Devil delirium.

"When we got out on that field, we quickly realized that we can hang with these guys," Leonard said. "You get out there, you start to compete ... if we execute and we play hard, we're gonna win this football game."

The win is the first of a ruthless gauntlet for the Blue Devils, who next take on Lafayette at home Saturday.

Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Sports Editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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