5 observations and more from No. 17 Duke football's first half against N.C. State

Running back Jordan Waters stiffarms a defender against Notre Dame.
Running back Jordan Waters stiffarms a defender against Notre Dame.

Fresh off the bye week, No. 17 Duke is back on the field Saturday night for a date with N.C. State at Wallace Wade Stadium. It took a while for the Blue Devils to get going, but they lead the Wolfpack 17-3 after 30 minutes of play:

Five observations:

Next man up: With quarterback Riley Leonard still recovering from a high ankle sprain suffered against Notre Dame a couple weeks ago, Duke turned to Henry Belin IV to captain the ship Saturday night. This is the redshirt sophomore’s first career start, and the first time a Mike Elko-led Blue Devil squad has started a game without Leonard. The New York native had a less-than-ideal start to the contest, with his first pass batted down at the line of scrimmage and his next attempt picked off. 

Belin finished the first half 4-for-11 passing for 107 yards., including two touchdowns: a monster 69-yard toss to Jalon Calhoun and an eight-yard strike to tight end Jeremiah Hasley. Belin has had his fair share of misses to receivers, but has also been hindered by some drops by the receiver corps. Add in his 32 rushing yards, and the starting debut is not off to a bad start at all. 

Early jitters: Prior to the first Belin touchdown, both teams started out the game sluggish on offense. After holding the Wolfpack to zero yards on their first drive, Duke did not fare much better, going three-and-out on the drive following Belin’s turnover. The next three combined drives were all punts, as penalties and drops mitigated several opportunities for both squads. While Belin and Duke have somewhat settled in, N.C. State continued to struggle to string together plays, going 1-for-6 on third downs in the first half. 

Lack of pressure: For the majority of the first half, Duke’s defense struggled to manufacture any pressure on N.C. State quarterback MJ Morris, giving him ample time to improvise out of the pocket. The Wolfpack offensive line has had their struggles so far this season, but the talented Duke defensive line has largely been stifled up to this point, failing to record a sack until 3:50 remained in the half. 

While Morris hasn’t burned the Blue Devils deep just yet, if he continues to have plenty of time to scan the field, something is bound to give. Look for Duke to possibly dial up some blitzes in the second half to try to put the inexperienced signal caller under more pressure. 

No-fly zone: Duke entered Saturday night first in the ACC in passing defense, and it lived up to its reputation in the first half. With the defensive line having a hard time reaching Morris, the back end of the defense held down the fort, coming up with big-time pass breakups time and time again. Morris finished the first half 5-for-12 for 39 yards, a number defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci has to be happy with. 

No play better exemplified the excellence through the air than Tre Freeman’s interception at the beginning of the second frame. Freeman lurked over the middle to cut off a Morris throw, returning the turnover to the N.C. State eight-yard line and setting up a Belin touchdown. 

Let it fly: While many may have thought Duke would opt for a more conservative game plan with its backup quarterback filling in, offensive coordinator Kevin Johns had other plans for Belin. From the opening kickoff, the Blue Devils showed a willingness to push the ball downfield, even when Belin struggled to convert early on. Johns dialed up a large amount of bootlegs and play-action passes that allowed the redshirt freshman to showcase his arm talent. 

This is a stark change from the Blue Devil attack fans had grown used to seeing with Leonard at the helm, one that relied on a heavy ground-and-pound approach that utilized the quarterback’s legs, but the coaching staff obviously trusts Belin to sling it. 

By the numbers:

Career-long field goals: After Belin’s opening-drive interception set up the Wolfpack on the Duke 38-yard line, Elko’s defense was put on its heels to begin the contest. But like it has all season, Santucci’s unit held strong, giving up zero net yards to seemingly set up a N.C. State punt, but Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren had different plans, trotting out kicker Brayden Narveson to attempt a 57-yard kick that he promptly drilled, giving him a new career-high and N.C. State a 3-0 lead. 

In the second quarter, Duke kicker Todd Pelino decided he wanted to get in on the fun, as he nailed a 52-yarder to bounce back from his rough performance against Notre Dame, and the long boot gave the sophomore a new career-high, besting his previous mark of 50 yards. 

Penalties: In a half that featured some chunk plays, both sides continued to shoot themselves in the foot, with a bevy of flags that killed the momentum of drives. For the Wolfpack, it was nine penalties for 67 yards, mostly in the form of false starts, but they were also whistled for a defensive pass interference and roughing the passer on Duke’s second scoring drive, injecting life into Belin and the offense.

Elko’s squad had struggles of their own on this front, as the Blue Devils were whistled for six penalties in the first two frames, losing a total of 33 yards. Much like the opponent, most of these infractions were false starts, but star left tackle Graham Barton was whistled for a holding that virtually killed a potential chance for a touchdown, forcing Duke to settle for a Todd Pelino field goal. Right before the conclusion of the half, Duke’s undisciplined play cost them hugely, as a holding wiped out a Jalon Calhoun punt return that would have gone for a touchdown. 

Duke rushing yards: While Duke threw deep in the first half more than usual, it still did not abandon its bread and butter. The Blue Devils continued to feed their two-headed monster of Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore on the ground, and the duo picked up 34 and 30 yards, respectively.

Perhaps the more surprising development was Belin’s ability to use his legs to pick up big gains, as he had several runs that gashed the Wolfpack defense, finishing the half with 32 yards, and contributing to Duke’s total tally of 96.

A play that mattered:

On Duke’s third offensive drive, it hit the jackpot. After beginning on the 10-yard line, the Blue Devils picked up an immediate chunk play, and Belin followed it up by uncorking a 69-yard pass that connected with Calhoun off of a double move, giving the Blue Devils the first touchdown of the game and a 7-3 first quarter lead. The score was the longest play of the year for Duke.


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