With Notre Dame facing fourth-and-16 in the final minute Saturday night, the Duke student section pushed down through the bleachers, excitedly filling in the gaps in anticipation of a second field-storming in a single month.
But the Fighting Irish had some fight left. Veteran quarterback Sam Hartman dashed 17 yards to move the chains, keeping the game alive and setting up Audric Estime’s 30-yard scoring rush just moments later. Against the odds, the 11th-ranked visitors had marched 95 yards in 2:04, adding the two-point conversion to down No. 17 Duke 21-14 at Wallace Wade Stadium.
As the sea of Notre Dame fans in attendance erupted, Duke fans trudged toward the exits, and students resentfully backed away from the fences. In an instant, the happy ending to one of the most exciting days in program history had vanished into thin air.
“Heartbroken,” head coach Mike Elko said of the locker room after the game. “You’re a fourth-and-16 away from beating No. 11 Notre Dame and going into the bye week 5-0.”
For as pivotal as Hartman’s mad dash proved to be, it is more difficult to quantify the impact of the late injury to Duke quarterback Riley Leonard. The junior passer had to be helped off the field with an apparent right ankle injury on crutches after losing a fumble with 18 seconds to play.
The severity of Leonard’s injury is yet to be revealed, but its emotional impact could be felt in the stunned silence that invaded Wallace Wade in the final moments of Saturday’s battle.
“We’ll have to find out as we go through the week, kind of where he’s at,” Elko said of Leonard’s injury.
For Leonard, it was both a tough outing against a staunch defense and a stirring effort all the same. On a night when Duke’s rising star found little success in the pocket, completing 12-of-27 passes for 134 yards with his first interception of the season, he still made a difference with his legs, igniting a dynamite second-half rushing attack that would help the Blue Devils briefly overcome a 10-0 halftime deficit.
In total, Leonard rushed 18 times for 88 yards, including a 33-yard carry into the red zone to set up his own go-ahead touchdown pass to junior receiver Jordan Moore. He also played the pooch punt to perfection, pinning Notre Dame at its own five-yard line before the closing sequence changed everything.
“I mean, you know what you’re gonna get from Riley Leonard,” graduate offensive lineman Jacob Monk said after the game. “Just a dog at heart.”
Across the board, Duke’s recommitment to the run with its back against the wall in the second half paid dividends. The Blue Devils have relied upon the run all season, averaging 200.5 rushing yards per game throughout their 4-0 start, and rightly refused to go away from it with the game script not in their favor Saturday night.
After rushing for just two yards in the first quarter and 38 in the first half, the combined efforts of Leonard and running backs Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore helped the Blue Devils to 151 yards on the ground in the final 30 minutes. On Duke’s first scoring drive, Waters and Moore combined for 68 of the 75 yards, with Waters finishing it off with his ACC-best eighth rushing touchdown to date.
“The resiliency and character of this team is unquestioned, and I think you saw that again in the second half, I thought they battled their tails off,” Elko said. “They fought and they fought, and they got themselves back in a position where they had a chance to win the game.”
Despite the result, Saturday’s game served as the centerpiece of what was a special day in Durham and on Duke’s campus with ESPN’s College GameDay, a regular guest in Cameron Indoor Stadium during the winter, visiting the gridiron for the very first time. Before kickoff, a capacity crowd of 40,768 crowded within the confines of Bostock Gate. For Elko, who has placed an emphasis on fan engagement since his introduction in December 2021, it was a sight to behold.
“I thought we packed that place,” Elko said. “I thought that was as great a crowd, as great an atmosphere as you could ever hope for, and that certainly was the home-field advantage that we hoped Wallace Wade could become.”
But after going toe-to-toe with the Fighting Irish, among the nation’s best, and looking as if they belonged, the Blue Devils will perhaps struggle even more to put their missed opportunity in the rearview. The sky is no longer just the limit in Wallace Wade, but the expectation, and Duke ultimately fell short in its biggest test to date.
“It’s crazy, seeing from where we came,” Monk said. “I was on the same team that lost to Charlotte [in September 2021]. A loss is a loss no matter what, and it hurts all the same.”
Duke will have to wait until after the upcoming bye week to rid itself of that stinging feeling. N.C. State, off to a 3-2 start, is slated to visit Oct. 14 at a time to be announced as the Blue Devils enter the ACC gauntlet.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.