LOUISVILLE, Ky.—They must celebrate Halloween early in Kentucky, because the Blue Devils looked spooked all afternoon.
After falling in its first ACC road contest to Florida State a week prior, No. 20 Duke had a chance to right the ship in another potential bowl-clinching matchup against No. 18 Louisville at L&N Federal Credit Union Stadium. In the end, the Blue Devils leave the state of Kentucky disheartened and likely out of ACC Championship contention, getting thrashed by the Cardinals 23-0 in the worst loss of head coach Mike Elko’s tenure, bringing their scoreless streak to six quarters dating back to the first half against the Seminoles.
“Hats off to Louisville, they physically got after us today,” Elko said. “That’s me, that’s my job is to get this team ready to go physically and we didn't answer the bell that way.”
In what seemed like a possible turning point in the middle of the second quarter, Duke (5-3, 2-2 in the ACC) instead shot itself in the foot. After starting on their own 8-yard-line, the Blue Devils marched into Cardinal territory, benefitting from several of quarterback Riley Leonard’s signature elusive scrambles. However, disaster struck once they crossed midfield, as two penalties — a false start and a personal foul — all but ended Duke’s chances at a score before half.
“Penalties were a huge factor, we committed way too many to have success on the road and that's on me as the head football coach,” Elko said. “I've gotta find a way to get that cleaned up and fixed.”
Louisville (7-1, 4-1) took advantage of this missed opportunity, hitting consecutive solid gains to move down the field and set up a 47-yard field goal to make the score 17-0 while only leaving Duke with 49 seconds in the half. The Blue Devils seemed as if they would have a chance to score after a big Jalon Calhoun grab placed the ball near midfield, but the call was overturned, holding Duke scoreless in a half for the first time since its matchup with Notre Dame.
Despite being listed as day-to-day, Leonard made the start against the Cardinals. Leonard seemed to be closer to his pre-injury self, breaking loose for multiple of his crafty scrambles that fans have grown accustomed to. However, Leonard largely struggled through the air, going 9-for-23 passing for 121 yards, albeit being held back by several drops, including the overturned completion to Calhoun.
From the opening kickoff, Louisville brought superior physicality, continuously gaining extra yards on offensive second efforts and manhandling the Blue Devils at the line of scrimmage, opening up massive running lanes and getting constant pressure on Leonard. In the first half alone, the Cardinals ran for 129 yards on 21 carries, picking up chunk plays at will. Duke’s stout defensive line unit also struggled to manufacture pressure on quarterback Jack Plummer, recording zero sacks in the first half and two total.
Like in many of its biggest games of the year to date, injuries caused the Blue Devils to be shorthanded against the Cardinals. Three key starters were missing for Duke Saturday, as tight end Nicky Dalmolin, cornerback Myles Jones and star offensive tackle Graham Barton were all unable to play. While this already would be troubling for any team, the injuries kept piling up as several other Blue Devils went down with injury during the contest, including captain Jacob Monk, linebackers Tre Freeman and Dorian Mausi and cornerback Al Blades Jr.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals welcomed back Jawhar Jordan from injury in this one, and they made sure to let everyone know he was back in full force, feeding the running back the ball early and often on their first offensive drive. Jordan answered the bell, getting four carries on his first series, including a 19-yard dash that set Louisville up deep in Duke territory. But Jordan wasn’t done yet, using a powerful second effort to reach paydirt, with his 14-yard scamper giving the Cardinals an early 7-0 lead.
“I think the main thing is we came out flat and that's a mistake," said defensive tackle Ja'Mion Franklin. "When you're playing a good team, especially with a good running game and such an explosive running back like Jordan is."
After conceding a fourth-and-1 on their first defensive drive, the Blue Devils were faced with the exact same situation on their chance to answer. However, Duke was not as successful as its counterpart, and Leonard fell on a bootleg, killing a chance at extending a promising drive. So far this season, Elko has been able to roll the dice in similar situations, counting on an excellent defense to bail out the offense if needed. This particular gamble proved to be in vain, as Louisville once again plowed through the Blue Devil defense, giving Jordan his second score of the day on a 23-yard outside-zone run where he was not touched by any defenders.
In their first drive out of the half, the Cardinals continued to move the ball with ease, with Jordan continuing his excellent play and carving up the depleted Duke defense. When Duke seemed as if it might get the first sack of the day on Plummer, the California transfer escaped on a eight-yard scramble that kept the drive alive. A big gain from Jordan set Louisville up inside the 10-yard-line, but Duke’s defense showed its first sign of life all night, as Ja’Mion Franklin came up with a sack that later forced the Cardinals to settle for a field goal that made Duke’s deficit 20-0.
Duke’s offensive woes didn’t seem like they could get worse, but the second half proved that incorrect. After forcing the field goal, the offense was desperate to score any sort of points, and desperation creates risks. After a holding call set up third-and-long, Leonard threw up an ill-advised screen pass for grabs, as Louisville defensive back Gilbert Frierson boxed out wideout Jordan Moore to come up with the first takeaway of the game and put Louisville in the red zone. Duke’s defense held strong, but the damage was already done, with Louisville electing to settle for another field goal to go up 23-0 near the end of the third quarter. A couple more listless drives later and some play for backup freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis, and this one was officially over.
“I think everything that we’re doing is kind of self-inflicted, so we need to look internally and be better,” Moore said. “The receivers need to be better, everybody just needs to be better and look inside and see what we can improve.”
Despite the beatdown, all hope is not lost for the Blue Devils. While an ACC Championship berth is likely out of the question, a 9-3 record, which would top last year’s, is not. That quest continues Thursday at home against Wake Forest.
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