ALL BARK, NO BITE: No. 17 Duke football uses dominant defense to wear down N.C. State, moves to 5-1

Henry Belin IV loads up a pass during Duke's Saturday night clash with N.C. State.
Henry Belin IV loads up a pass during Duke's Saturday night clash with N.C. State.

Interception. Punt. Nine yards of offense. 

The first two possessions of redshirt freshman Henry Belin IV’s first-career start as Duke’s quarterback were shaky, and N.C. State’s pressure seemed to stifle the Blue Devils. 

However, in another game under the lights at Wallace Wade Stadium, the 17th-ranked Blue Devils took charge with explosive plays and a lights-out defense to suffocate the Wolfpack 24-3, staying unbeaten in conference play.          

"I thought the story of our game tonight was our defense," head coach Mike Elko said. "We knew the best defense on the field tonight would win the football game, and I thought they played lights out from beginning to end."

This was not a clean contest for either team, with a combined 17 penalties for 120 yards, inhibiting both offenses from establishing a rhythm throughout the game. 

Junior quarterback Riley Leonard did not play after suffering a high-ankle sprain against Notre Dame, leading to Belin’s opportunity. 

With 6:26 remaining in the first quarter, the New York native took the top off the defense with a 69-yard strike to wide receiver Jalon Calhoun, who showed off his elite route-running ability with a double move to create space. This score completely flipped the momentum of the game, and Duke (5-1, 2-0 in the ACC) never looked back. 

"I thought [Belin] managed the game the way we wanted him to, and so I was really happy with how he played," Elko said. "We knew we had to create explosives to be successful and we were able to get that done."

"Obviously, whenever anything like [the interception] happens, you have to move on to the next play," Belin said. "It was really just next play mentality, go out there and do what we were supposed to do."

On the Blue Devils’ first offensive play in the second half, graduate running back Jordan Waters took an 83-yard carry to the house, increasing Duke’s lead to 24-3. This was the longest play from scrimmage all year, replacing Belin and Calhoun’s connection just two quarters earlier. 

Despite the explosiveness of the offense, the Blue Devil defense was the key to separating from the Wolfpack (4-3, 1-2), completely stifling N.C. State’s attack and forcing stops even when the opposition crossed into Duke territory. The team had seven drives that either reached or crossed midfield, none of which ended up in points. 

Take the opening possession of the second half. Sophomore quarterback MJ Morris orchestrated a seemingly promising drive across midfield for N.C. State. However, a sack and two impressive plays by redshirt sophomore linebacker Tre Freeman and former running back-turned safety Terry Moore led to another Wolfpack punt. 

Those two names were frequent playmakers, as Moore flew over the field with seven tackles and a pass breakup, and Freeman had a team-high 15 tackles, along with a crucial pick in the second quarter. Two plays later, Belin connected with freshman tight end Jeremiah Hasley for his first career touchdown reception, increasing the Blue Devils’ lead to 17-3. 

"Terry's a guy that we have a lot of confidence in," Elko said. "I think he's capable of playing at a really high level. He's very athletic. He's very dynamic."

"Our confidence is through the roof as a defense," Freeman said. "We don't feel like anybody can score on us."

After an opening 57-yard field goal by Brayden Narveson — giving N.C. State its first and only lead of the game — the Wolfpack’s subsequent six possessions either led to turnovers, punts or into the half, and Duke took a 14-point lead into the locker room

The Blue Devil pass defense has improved tremendously this year, and it brought it again Saturday night. After throwing for 265 yards and four touchdowns in his season debut against Marshall, Morris was held to 193 yards and no touchdowns against Duke in a difficult evening.

The secondary also put pressure on Morris, as junior Brandon Johnson recorded a key 4th-down sack in the second half and Moore combined on a sack with senior linebacker Dorian Mausi.  

"[The secondary's] been doing it for weeks," Elko said. "It's the third-ranked scoring defense in the country."

The running game, which has been the juggernaut of this offense, was limited in the first few possessions due to the solid Wolfpack front. However, not only did Belin’s first touchdown strike increase his confidence after a shaky start, but it also opened up the field for increased rushing opportunities. 

On the possession immediately after the touchdown, N.C. State’s defense was forced to respect Belin’s deep-ball potential, and the two-headed monster of Waters and junior Jaquez Moore got going. Waters — the ACC leader in rushing touchdowns — finished the day with 123 yards and a score, and Moore chipped in with 45 yards of his own. 

"There's so many bodies in and around the line of scrimmage," Elko said. "We just had to stay patient with it and keep pounding away and hopefully break some and we were able to do that." 

In the final quarter of the game, both teams exchanged punts as the Blue Devils were content running down the clock with conservative play calling, and N.C. State still could not get on the board after the opening field goal. 

"We talk a lot about game control, and that's even more important when it's a first time starter," Elko said. "We were able to keep and play that game in a way where we didn't have to chase points and I thought that was really important in how the outcome played out."

The Blue Devils will next travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on unbeaten Florida State Oct. 21. 


Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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