Football is a punishing game. Its physicality is unmatched and unrelenting, and teams are continuously forced to adapt to the injuries caused as a result.
The Blue Devils were without key starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night against the Demon Deacons, but were able to overcome the adversity and edge out a 24-21 victory. With starting quarterback Riley Leonard out with a toe injury, linebacker Dorian Mausi out with an upper body injury and left tackle Graham Barton unavailable for the second-straight game, the ball was put in true freshman Grayson Loftis’ hands. While he did not have an impressive individual performance, losing two turnovers and totaling just 86 passing yards, Duke’s rushing attack and stingy defense were enough to ensure the team will play in a bowl game for a second-straight year.
“I can't even put into words how proud I am of these kids, for everything that they went through from an adversity standpoint,” head coach Mike Elko said after the game. “It was just a tremendous statement on grit and toughness. Hopefully this will finally put to bed all of the talk about whether or not this team will respond.”
Just when the game seemed destined for overtime, with Duke pinned deep inside its own territory facing a third and long, Loftis heaved up a prayer to junior wide receiver Jordan Moore. Wake Forest corner DaShawn Jones could not contain himself, and extended the Blue Devils’ drive with a pass interference call.
Jones was called for another big unnecessary roughness penalty just a few plays later, setting Todd Pelino up on the 9-yard line to chip in the game-winning 26-yard field goal. Pelino kicked it true, and Duke survived the upset.
Entering the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils (6-3, 3-2 in the ACC) were in desperate need of a big play. Linebacker Tre Freeman provided the spark, clobbering Wake Forest quarterback Mitch Griffis to force a fumble, which was jumped on by defensive lineman Aeneas Peebles.
Even after the huge defensive play, Loftis and company could not move the chains, failing to register a first down and giving the ball back to the Demon Deacons (4-5, 1-5) after just 1:29.
Duke was not done imposing its will, though, and redshirt senior DeWayne Carter was the next player to step up. On the following Wake Forest drive, tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage to force a punt and give the ball back to the Blue Devils.
Finally, the offense had a response. While Loftis could not connect with redshirt senior wideout Jalon Calhoun — who dropped what would have been a massive gain — he hit Jordan Moore for a game-tying touchdown just moments later. Moore hung onto the ball despite sustaining a major hit for his fourth score of the season.
Good things come in threes, and the defense decided it needed one more big play to truly punctuate the game. Linebacker Ryan Smith picked off an errant pass from Griffis near the line of scrimmage, and stopped the Demon Deacons as they were marching into Blue Devil territory.
“We talked about winning the fourth quarter as being an important piece of what we do. We talked about winning the turnover battle is an important piece of what we do,” Elko said. “Then we won the turnover battle 2-0 in the fourth quarter. That’s gonna win you a lot of football games, that recipe. It's complimentary football.”
While Duke was without its top signal caller, Wake Forest leaned on its quarterback. Griffis completed his first 12 passes, including a 61-yard bomb to Taylor Morin in the third quarter — the longest passing play the Blue Devils have allowed all year.
Morin’s catch put the Demon Deacons on the 5-yard line, where Griffis dove into the end zone for his second rushing score of the game. That series of plays sucked the life out of an already depleted home crowd, and gave Wake Forest an injection of energy.
After trading scores early, the Blue Devils appeared to gain momentum after stopping the Demon Deacons on a fourth down deep inside Duke territory. The moment was short-lived, though, as Loftis gave the ball back to the Demon Deacons on the first play of the ensuing drive. The freshman was hit as he threw the ball, and it hung in the air for linebacker Quincy Bryant to pick off.
Wake Forest took advantage of the turnover, and Griffis scrambled eight yards into the end zone to give the lead back to the Demon Deacons.
With the Blue Devils having troubles with their own signal caller, their offensive game plan revolved around their talented running back room. Despite not being able to truly keep the defense honest, Duke was able to average six yards per carry in the first half, but that diminished to 4.4 by the end of the game. Junior running back Jaquez Moore put together two consecutive big runs in the second quarter, first breaking free for a 25-yard gain then sprinting into the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown.
And, on their last drive of the first half, which chewed through 7:10 of game time, the Blue Devils ran the ball 12 times while attempting just two passes. The methodical march paid off for Duke, as graduate running back Jordan Waters eventually found the endzone for his 10th touchdown of the season.
Duke appeared disjointed on both sides of the ball in the game’s opening drives, leading to an early 76-yard march down the field from Wake Forest that opened the game’s scoring. The drive included four plays of at least 10 yards, and was punctuated when running back Tate Carney drove through initial contact and followed his blockers into the end zone.
To make matters worse, Duke gave away an early turnover. After a quick three and out, Loftis coughed up a fumble on his second drive.
The defense was able to return to form and mitigate the damage, though, as it forced a field goal attempt that went wide left. Wake Forest kicker Matthew Dennis did not have his best outing, as he missed another field goal — this one from 39 yards — on the Demon Deacons’ opening drive of the second half.
The Blue Devils will continue their conference schedule with another in-state opponent, this time traveling to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina. Loftis will have another week to grow comfortable in the system before he takes the stage for Duke’s fourth ranked matchup of the season.
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Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.