The “next-man-up” mentality is nothing new in sports. It’s especially prevalent in football, a brutally physical competition that often leads to several injuries per game. That physicality dictates that backups and bench players will inevitably be forced to step up and fill the shoes of the guy in front of them who went down.
Redshirt freshman Henry Belin IV certainly had a big pair of shoes to fill Saturday night after star quarterback Riley Leonard went down with a high ankle sprain in the final seconds of a devastating loss to Notre Dame. While there was speculation that the bye week would give Leonard enough time to recover for the matchup against N.C. State, head coach Mike Elko ultimately went with Belin to run the offense.
And it was interesting.
Duke came out on top, and by a sizable margin. The Blue Devils won 24-3 on prime-time, and now sit at an impressive 5-1 across all competitions. That being said, the game was a little more chaotic than the score might indicate. The Duke offense generated just nine yards of production in its first two drives, ending in an interception and a punt. Over the course of the game, Belin was a meager 4-of-12 in the air, throwing for a total of 107 yards. The bulk of that yardage came on one play, when receiver Jalon Calhoun took a ball 69 yards to the house.
By a lot of metrics, the N.C. State offense was the better of the two Saturday. It produced more total yards and ran 28 more offensive plays than the Blue Devil attack did. I suppose it is a testament to the team that Elko has built: One that wins the turnover battle and plays the sort of defense that bends, but doesn’t break. Allowing just three points on more than 300 yards of offense is an impressive feat. It is the sort of accomplishment that allows a team to win the football game even if its quarterback only completes four passes.
Unfortunately for Duke, the next game on the schedule is against a team that is much, much better than the Wolfpack. No. 4 Florida State is probably the best team in the ACC, and one that will pose the greatest challenge yet for the Blue Devils.
The reality is simple: Belin is fine. He played a solid game against N.C. State, working within a scheme that did not hinge on the sort of heroics that only someone as talented as Leonard can execute. The home team got the win, relying on a solid defense and strong rushing game to walk out with the victory.
But Duke is going to need every weapon it has against the Seminoles. If the Blue Devils want even a remote chance of winning Saturday’s game in Tallahassee, Fla., Leonard will have to play.
Duke is already coming into this game as the underdog. While that has not bothered the Blue Devils in the past, it is indicative of the larger picture. Personnel-wise, Florida State is just better. The defense is, admittedly, only decent on paper, but quarterback Jordan Travis is looking like a probable first-round NFL Draft pick with an excellent supporting cast. The Seminoles are highly ranked, and for a very good reason.
Duke’s underdog mentality might help. The home team is overwhelmingly favored, but let’s not forget that this is a Blue Devil squad that beat then-No. 9 Clemson and took No. 15 Notre Dame down to the last minute. To beat a team like Florida State, this team needs its offensive leader. It needs Leonard.
Beyond just the energy and direction that Leonard brings to this team, his talents are an incredibly valuable asset. The junior is one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC, and his combination of agility and speed in the open field along with deep passing ability is rare. He fits into a unique offensive game plan that creates mismatches and openings in opposing defenses with read options and designed quarterback runs. Leonard can also use his legs to turn collapsed plays into significant yardage gains, as we have seen a few times this season. While Belin is quick on his feet, his 33.3% completion rate against N.C. State indicates that he probably is not as strong a passer as Leonard. The redshirt freshman is a solid backup, but he just isn't capable of beating a team as talented as the Seminoles.
If Duke wants any real shot against an imposing Florida State team, the Blue Devils will need Leonard back. The Seminoles don’t have an incredible defense in terms of yards allowed, but that won’t matter if they rack up points early and often against Duke. This game has the looks of one that might become a shootout, in which case the only way the group from Durham has a reasonable chance at coming out on top is if it has Riley Leonard leading the charge on offense.
At the end of the day, this one is going to be tough to win regardless of if he is on the field. But if Duke wants a real, tangible chance at coming out on top, it will absolutely need Leonard to not only make a return from injury, but to play like the potential early NFL draft pick that he is.
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