No. 18 Duke football's win against UConn was dominant, but underlying trends point to room for growth

Duke's offensive line was called for three holding calls and four false starts against UConn.
Duke's offensive line was called for three holding calls and four false starts against UConn.

On its face, a 41-7 win against now 0-4 UConn does not say much more about Duke than what was already known: It is a talented team that deserves its No. 18 ranking. However, even in lopsided games that are never truly in question, a team goes through tense moments and exhibits characteristics that can be extrapolated to a larger context.

In the Blue Devils’ win against the Huskies, they showed glimpses of both a team capable of top-10 wins like the one over then-No. 9 Clemson, and a team that lacks the constant discipline necessary to compete at a top-end level. Taken together, Duke continued to impress mightily, but with the strength of its opponents about to soar, it is worth taking a closer look than just the scoreboard.

Take, for instance, the offensive drive at the end of the second quarter. After forcing the sixth UConn punt of the half, the Blue Devils got the ball back on their own 40-yard line with 34 seconds left. Junior quarterback Riley Leonard completed four straight passes to move the offense all the way to the 22-yard line, and sophomore kicker Todd Pelino drilled a 40-yard field goal as time expired.

While that series may have been inconsequential in the final outcome — it moved the score from 24-0 to 27-0 — it was the first time all season Leonard and the offense successfully converted a last-minute drive. Duke’s previous two attempts ended in a fumble against Clemson and a Pelino miss against Lafayette.

“[The offense is] really, really comfortable in that situation,” said head coach Mike Elko. “Finally, in this game, we actually put the drive together and kicked the field goal. It's nice to put all three phases of that together as we head into some games, where those parts of the game are going to be more important.”

With the increased difficulty that lies ahead, moments like these could make or break one-score games. But, while he has now shown poise with the clock winding down, Leonard still needs to improve his deep-ball accuracy.

The Fairhope, Ala., native missed on two early shots to junior receiver Jordan Moore, including one in the Blue Devils’ first drive that would have resulted in a touchdown. He finally connected with Moore for a score in the second half, but by that point the intensity of the game had significantly diminished. Leonard has proven himself on the ground and through the first two levels in the air, but his less-than-stellar performance on throws of at least 15 yards shows that he still has room to grow.

The other component of Duke’s offense that faltered slightly was discipline on the offensive line, specifically penalties. The O-line has been instrumental in the Blue Devils’ 15 rushing touchdowns this season, but it paired Saturday’s three scores on the ground with three holding calls and four false starts. Graduate captain Jacob Monk, a massive piece of the unit, accounted for two of the holding calls.

Looking forward as soon as this coming weekend against Notre Dame, who boasts one of the top O-line fronts in the nation, negative-yardage plays from penalties will hinder Duke’s chances of keeping pace.

On the other side of the ball, the defensive line showed why it may be the Blue Devils’ best unit. The biggest play of the day came in the form of a scoop and score from three-year captain DeWayne Carter, but the smaller, less-noticeable moments were what propelled the D-line’s success.

Duke held UConn to just 89 total rushing yards, but the even more impressive statistic is that the Huskies racked up 57 yards lost on the ground. Time and again, the D-line stuffed rushers at the line and pursued them in the backfield, which culminated in eight tackles for a loss across the team.

“I felt like we just kind of went back to our basics. Like Elko says a lot of times, it's not about them, it's about us,” said senior defensive tackle Aeneas Peebles, who finished with 1.5 sacks. “We just went back to playing our brand of football, playing as hard as we can every day. If we do that, the sky's the limit for his defense.”

Possibly even more so than the Blue Devils’ offense and defense, the special teams unit showed a capability to compete at an elite level. In addition to his aforementioned 40-yarder, Pelino nailed a career-high 50-yard field goal. While he did miss a 45-yard try in the second half, wind and rain played a factor.

Graduate punter Porter Wilson averaged 52 yards on his punts, and he landed two inside the 20-yard line. While no team ever wants to punt, having a player with the skill of Wilson helps Duke control field position. 

On the other side of things, redshirt senior receiver Jalon Calhoun helped advance the offense’s starting point with four punt returns for 73 yards. Elko kept faith in Calhoun after he muffed a punt in the opener against Clemson, and the experienced receiver put the Blue Devils into scoring position time and again.

As easy as it is to take Duke’s dismantling of UConn as just that, breaking the game down into smaller pieces paints a clearer picture of where the Blue Devils stand. As they enter the gauntlet ahead, with two ranked matchups in the next three game weeks, high-intensity reps against the Huskies will prove crucial to the team’s success.

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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