UConn couldn’t bring a band, so Duke decided to bring the noise.
In its first road test of the season, the 18th-ranked Blue Devils delivered, trekking up to East Hartford, Conn., and dominating the Huskies 41-7 to improve to 4-0 on the year while flexing its muscles in all three phases throughout the afternoon.
“Proud of the way we came here and handled our business, I thought we played a mature game,” head coach Mike Elko said. “You know, we're not naive to all the talk and all the buzz that's out there right now. And that's all we stayed focused and handled the task at hand the way we needed to.”
UConn came out swinging in the second half, forcing a three-and-out and producing its first trip to the red zone, as a big Victor Rosa run aided by a facemask penalty placed the Huskies in scoring position. However, Duke’s defense bared down as they have all year in the red zone, as two tackles-for-loss from Wesley Williams and Peebles knocked UConn out of the red zone, leading to a missed 42-yarder to keep the shutout alive.
The Blue Devils (4-0, 1-0 in the ACC) had their own scoring chance on their second half after intermission, but it fizzled out just like their counterpart. A 4-5 drive from Leonard and a late hit penalty on a scramble set Pelino up for his third field goal attempt of the game, but the 45-yarder went wide left, keeping the game poised at 27-0.
After watching its offense fail to convert, Duke’s defense took matters into its own hands, as Ryan Smith punched the ball out of Jalen Mitchell’s hands and DeWayne Carter scooped it up and rumbled it in for a touchdown, the second fumble recovery touchdown of his career, to make it 34-0.
After missing multiple deep shots through most of the first three quarters, Leonard and his receivers finally synced up late into the third. After connecting with redshirt senior wideout Jalon Calhoun for 24 yards, Leonard followed it up with a 22-yard strike to Jordan Moore, padding the lead to 41-0 and ending Leonard’s day.
Evidently, Duke’s defensive prowess travels, as coordinator Tyler Santucci’s unit looked as stingy as ever early in East Hartford, not allowing the Huskies to cross the 50-yard line until the second half. In the first half, UConn (0-4) managed just 32 total yards, punting six times and coughing up one fumble.
“Yeah, I felt like we just kind of went back to our basics. Coach Elko says all the time, it's not about them. It's about us,” Aeneas Peebles said. “You know, we just went back to playing our brand of football, playing as hard as we can every day. So we do that, I mean, sky's the limit for his defense.”
The Blue Devils had grown used to scoring on every opening drive so far this season, but UConn’s defense proved stout from the jump. After getting a stop on its first defensive series, Duke gained minimal yards off two Jordan Waters carries, prompting Leonard to uncork a deep ball to junior wideout Jordan Moore that he just overthrew, leading to a three-and-out.
“I think we just got to go back and watch the film. I felt like Riley played really well, the receivers getting open as well,” Jordan Moore said. “He spread the ball around and whatever we look back on film to see we need to improve, we're going to find a plan to improve that and get it right.”
Duke dominated the field position battle throughout the first half, forcing UConn punts from deep within its own territory that led to great starting points for Leonard and company. After the first drive, the Blue Devils kept the Huskies pinned on their own side, forcing a three-and-out that Calhoun used to flip the field for the offense. Later in the second quarter, an Aeneas Peebles sack on an already third-and-long set up another good return for Calhoun, his second of the afternoon that ended in Husky territory.
When given favorable opportunities to score early, Duke cashed in. After Calhoun set the Blue Devils up in enemy territory, Duke was given another field position boost after a roughing the passer penalty elevated to targeting that ejected UConn leading tackler Jackson Mitchell and set the Blue Devils up on the 23-yard line. From there, the offense did its job, capping off the drive with a goal line scamper from Waters to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
After not having to do much through the air through Duke’s last two dominant victories, it did not take long for Leonard to knock the rust off his arm. Through his first three drives, the junior was 9-of-13 passing for 66 yards, including a huge fourth-down conversion that set up a career-long 50 yard field goal for sophomore Todd Pelino in the second frame.
“We felt like our matchup and our strength was a little bit more our advantage in the throw game and so we knew that was going to be a part of it,” Elko said. “You know, again, I would like to have been able to run the ball a little bit more than we were able to, but, you know, we're able to do the things we needed to do throwing the football to have the success that we needed to have.”
After forcing three punts on the first three drives, the Blue Devil defense turned up the heat, forcing a fumble on the Huskies’ first drive of the second quarter that redshirt sophomore Nick Morris Jr. recovered on the 10-yard-line. On the following play, Waters powered his way into the end zone, securing his seventh rushing score of the season and a 17-0 lead for Elko’s squad.
Despite a myriad of holding penalties that could have derailed Duke drives, nothing could go wrong for the Blue Devils on offense in the first half. After a holding penalty knocked Duke out of the red zone, Jordan Waters caught one out of the backfield, converting a third-and-20 and setting Duke up on the goal line. Right after, Leonard called his own number, running in from three yards to extend the Blue Devils’ lead to 24-0.
Duke showed its explosive ability at the end of the first half, driving 38 yards in 34 seconds to set up a Pelino 40-yarder, one that gave the Blue Devils a 27-0 lead heading into the locker room.
Duke’s next contest is its biggest test to date, as the Blue Devils will take on Notre Dame in front of a sold-out crowd this upcoming Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
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