5 observations and more from Duke football's first half against UConn

Graduate rusher Jordan Waters runs with the ball during Duke's win against Clemson.
Graduate rusher Jordan Waters runs with the ball during Duke's win against Clemson.

On the road for the first time this season, No. 18 Duke took it to UConn early at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. At the halftime break Saturday afternoon, the Blue Devils lead the Huskies 27-0:

Five observations:

Early misses: After the defense held strong on the Huskies’ opening drive and redshirt senior receiver Jalon Calhoun returned a punt for 29 yards, the Blue Devils were set to open the game’s scoring. However, junior quarterback Riley Leonard missed an open Jordan Moore for what would have been a touchdown, and Duke had to punt, marking the first time this season the team has not scored on its opening drive. Leonard again looked deep to Moore at the end of the first quarter, but a pass interference call prevented the two from connecting.

Trouble with penalties: The Huskies’ offensive struggles were compounded by costly penalties on both sides of the ball. An offensive holding call backed UConn up to its own 4-yard-line, and a roughing the passer call elevated to targeting from Husky linebacker Jackson Mitchell led to the Blue Devils’ first score — a rushing touchdown from graduate running back Jordan Waters. Mitchell, the Huskies’ leader in tackles, was ejected from the rest of the game on the call. By the end of the first quarter, UConn accumulated four penalties for 45 yards. Duke struggled with penalties of its own, with graduate student guard Jacob Monk getting called for two holding calls.

Three straight stops: Duke’s defense, which entered the game allowing an average of just 9.3 points per game, did not allow the Huskies to cross midfield in the first quarter, forcing three straight punts. Senior Aeneas Peebles came up with a big tackle for a loss on UConn’s third drive, helping the Blue Devils remain in control of the ball. The Huskies were not able to get into enemy territory all half, logging just 32 yards of total offense in the first half.

Aggressive play call: Duke opened the second half with four yards to go on fourth down on UConn’s 36 yard-line. Head coach Mike Elko decided to put the ball in Leonard’s hands, and the Fairhope, Ala., native came through, completing a slant to Calhoun for the first down. That play led to a career-high, 50-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Todd Pelino that brought the Blue Devils’ lead to 10-0. Pelino added in one more boot as time expired.

Putting on the pressure: In addition to giving Duke’s offense strong starting field position, the defense had its way with the Huskies. In particular, Peebles had a major sack on a third down and junior nickel Brandon Johnson added 1.5 tackles for loss. UConn faced a similar fate to the Blue Devils’ earlier opponents, struggling to gain any offensive momentum before getting hit hard by Duke.

By the numbers:

Rushing touchdowns: Waters’ first quarter score was Duke’s 13th rushing touchdown of the season. Entering Week 4, the Blue Devils sat third in the nation in rushing scores, and Waters’ score vaulted them into first. The ground game has been an integral part of each win for the squad, and Waters has been at the focal point of the attack. In fact, his day was not done there, as Waters again reached the end zone on a 10-yard rush in the second quarter. The Fairmont, N.C., native now has seven scores on the year. Even more, Leonard trotted into the end zone for a score of his own, bringing Duke’s total to 15 rushing scores this season.

Pass attempts: Leonard nearly saw more action through the air in the first quarter than he did in the entire game against Lafayette, completing 7-of-10 passes for 53 yards. While Duke’s offense still revolves around the run, Elko changed his game plan early against the Huskies. In the team’s last two games, the Blue Devils totaled twice as many rush attempts as passing tries.

Punt returns: After muffing a punt in the season opener, Calhoun turned things around with 63 total yards on three returns in the first half. This allowed Duke to start its drives right around midfield each time, making things easy for Leonard and the offense.

A play that mattered: 

On UConn’s second offensive play of the second quarter, quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson botched a pitch to running back Bryan Domino, and, after a few bounces, redshirt sophomore Nick Morris Jr. fell on the ball to give Duke possession on the 10-yard line. Just a play later, Waters streaked into the end zone for his second touchdown of the half, putting the Blue Devils ahead 17-0.

Dom Fenoglio | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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