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Take of the week: This Clemson win says less about Duke football than fans want it to

Students celebrate, preparing to rush the field as the final minutes of the Clemson game tick by.
Students celebrate, preparing to rush the field as the final minutes of the Clemson game tick by.

If you’re a college football fan and haven’t recently taken up residence under a rock, you heard all about Duke’s big upset win against Clemson on Monday night. The projected point spread from Vegas? Duke +13. The final margin? Duke -21. That’s an enormous 34-point swing from the prediction to the final score, indicating a sizable upset win, nay, a blowout against a team that opened its season in the top 10.

There’s no doubt, it was one of the biggest upsets in recent college football memory. The Blue Devils were rewarded for it, too. They climbed into the rankings at the No. 21 spot after the win, while Clemson was punished with a massive drop to No. 25. Students stormed the field and social media went wild. Now, driven by that energy, speculation has run wild about the ceiling for Duke. Around campus, I’ve heard all sorts of discussion about where this type of win can take the Blue Devils. Some have even posited that this could be a building block for a victory against Notre Dame or Florida State.

For those people — members of the growing population of true believers in this Duke football team — I once again take up my solemn duty as resident rain on the proverbial parade. The win against Clemson doesn’t mean as much as a lot of fans want it to. Truthfully, it says very little about how the rest of the Blue Devil season will go and a lot more about where the Tigers are at right now.

The first place that many fans look to when they want to discern who won a football game is, unsurprisingly, points scored. That particular statistic is one that Duke led Clemson in; 28-7, to be exact. 

Perhaps more notably, it is one of the only measurements in which the Blue Devils came out on top. Rushing yards? 213-199, Clemson. Passing yards? 209-175 in favor of the Tigers. Clemson had 29 first downs in the game, while Duke had just 17. If the average football fan were to take a look at the basic numbers in this matchup without knowledge of the outcome, a majority would probably assume that the visiting team won this football game. Frankly, it doesn’t even look all that close. 

So what happened? How did the Blue Devils escape with their lives? Stats indicated that Duke played a good game, but not a great one. Offensive production, which totaled out to 374 yards, was fine. As was the sack margin, which Duke led 2-0. Riley Leonard had a generally inoffensive completion rate of 17-33. That being said, a lot of sloppy, careless mistakes were made. Passes dropped, balls nearly intercepted, one punt muffed in horrific fashion.

As it turns out, the answer, especially in the second half, was simple. Clemson’s offense was even less organized than Duke’s. At the goal line, it was especially incoherent: Three times in the third and fourth quarters, the Tigers drove Duke all the way down the field, within sniffing distance of the end zone. The first time it happened, a false-start penalty pulled the attackers off of the 1-yard line, where some ugly plays (and credit the Duke defense here) forced the Tigers to settle for a field goal attempt, which was either deflected off to the left by a Duke hand or shanked hard by Clemson’s freshman kicker.

On the second trip down the field, the Tigers once again found themselves knocking on the door. This time, and on the time after it, avoidable fumbles gave Duke the ball. The Blue Devils actually only capitalized on one of the three turnovers; the other two were quick three-and-outs. In the end, Clemson only scored once in four trips to the red zone. 

Duke is not a bad team, and the Blue Devils may well deserve their ranking. Elko’s group is a good one, and played relatively well in its season opener against a highly-touted opponent. But it is important to acknowledge that a lot of the signs from that first game point to Clemson not being worthy of that preseason No. 9 ranking. The Tigers, while historically being one of the strongest teams in both the conference and country, might be at the brink of an underwhelming season. 

The Blue Devils beat a pretty good football team in a primetime game with a lot of pressure and outside attention. Still, real tests are coming up. The Blue Devils will host No. 10 Notre Dame later this year before traveling to No. 4 Florida State down the line.

After the Monday night game, I faced ridicule from my fellow writers for the column I wrote in The Chronicle’s football preview promoting patience and management of expectations. I’m here to say I stand by it. Wait and see. Wait and see if this group is the real deal, or if the Clemson game was, like I think it might be, more of a lucky break combined with a few good plays.


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