The news made public Thursday wasn’t what the Blue Devils nor their fan base wanted to hear.
Starting quarterback Riley Leonard will miss an extended period of time, read news alerts around four o’clock, just hours before Duke was slated to kick off against Wake Forest at Wallace Wade Stadium. An injured toe meant that the Blue Devils would have to return to the deeper corners of their quarterback room, with freshman Grayson Loftis in the next-man-up position Duke had hoped it would not need to lean on.
A flurry of injured Blue Devil starters befell Duke and took a squad eyeing a premier bowl game or more and set it back to the dark, days before head coach Mike Elko took charge when Duke was shutout against Louisville Saturday. But plow ahead with what was on their plate the Blue Devils did, ultimately slipping past the Demon Deacons with a come-from-behind 24-21 victory on the game’s final play.
“It wasn't pretty,” Elko said. ”... But at the end of the day, we got the result that we needed.”
Duke did not snap the ball with a lead once. Turns out it didn’t need to.
The 19-year-old Loftis, a native of Gaffney, S.C., entered the game in Louisville for the final offensive possession — with a disheartening prognosis for Leonard, Elko said postgame Thursday, it was Loftis’ turn (with backup Henry Belin IV also sidelined with an upper-body injury) — and he completed just three passes for 30 yards. That was the entire in-game experience under the belt of the first-year quarterback entering Thursday, which became his first-career start.
“Take a deep breath, go out there and let it loose,” Elko said was his message to the young quarterback. “You got nothing to lose. We believe in you.”
A rocky first couple of possessions left Loftis with a wretched 1-of-7 passing clip and a run game struggling to move the ball. The game script was all but out the window early. Before he completed his second pass, he had already been stripped on a sack and thrown an interception, leaving the several thousand fans in attendance wondering if another blowout loss was in the cards. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, running back Jaquez Moore exploded through the second line of Demon Deacon defense for a 32-yard score 38 seconds into the second quarter. Duke was on the board.
But the interspersed three-and-outs and turnovers left the Duke defense, itself dealing with injuries to linebacker Dorian Mausi and cornerback Myles Jones, on the field for extended periods. But the injuries meant that the next men up behind them — Nick Morris Jr. and Chandler Rivers — would need to step into the spotlight. Wake Forest quarterback Mitch Griffis put on a show early on as part of head coach Dave Clawson’s slow-mesh offense, completing his first 12 passes and allowing the run game to flourish. So as Duke scored, Wake Forest followed, putting that much more pressure on Loftis and the Blue Devils to not make mistakes and find the end zone.
“We didn't want to go out there and have to chase the game,” Elko said.
Each time the offense was back on the field it was either tied or behind, though it seemed as though the entire game was played with the Blue Devils fighting for their lives.
And to an extent, they were. Bowl eligibility looked like a given when the Blue Devils cruised to a 4-0 record and a No. 16 ranking in the AP poll. But the last-minute collapse against Notre Dame and Leonard’s original injury (to his right ankle), sidelined him until Duke battled Florida State. And even then he wasn’t quite himself. The same could be said about the ensuing loss against Louisville.
Prior to the loss against Notre Dame, the Blue Devils were completing 68.8% of their passes with no interceptions. Since then and including Thursday, the completion rate has plummeted to 43.9% and Leonard, Belin and Loftis have thrown five interceptions in as many games. Loftis was charged with righting that ship and leading the offense to the end zone for the first time since the first quarter of the loss at Florida State.
The Blue Devils have also now been out-gained in five straight and have plummeted to 12th in the conference in total yards per game and seventh-worst among Power Five teams in passing yardage per game (Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Rutgers, Utah and Auburn have each thrown for fewer yards). Essentially, Duke and its low-tier passing offense is going to need to be addressed, regardless of who is throwing the ball.
Unsurprisingly, then, while Duke was behind Thursday, it looked as if it would have to wait at least another week to flip the number in the win column to the key number six; it was starting to face the possibility of a reality in which that bowl eligibility-clinching win would have to wait for the final weeks of the regular season. It would have been a near impossible proposition if you asked anyone around the program back in September.
But guys like Morris indeed stepped up when they were needed, as he recorded a team-high 11 tackles and was able to help bully the Demon Deacons’ offense into a fumble, two punts and an interception in the fourth quarter.
Loftis, on the other hand, completed five of his 11 second-half throws, and while he was by no means dominant over the air, his emergent confidence in his arm helped rekindle the Duke ground game after gaining just 13 yards during the third quarter.
“We did a really good job of running the ball… against a team that knew we were going to run it every single time,” Elko said.
An adjusted offensive scheme composed by Elko and offensive coordinator Kevin Johns aimed to help Loftis make his reads: he targeted only four different Blue Devils and picked up under 100 yards over the air, the second time in three weeks Duke has not met the century mark in passing yardage. And between consistent pressure from the Demon Deacons pass rush and his favorite target, Jalon Calhoun, dropping not one or two, but three passes, it looked as if hope was lost. But someone had to win the game, even when all night it seemed like neither team was going to put that decisive score on the Wallace Wade Stadium scoreboard.
But Duke pushed ahead and created additional opportunities for Loftis, who clearly became more steady as the game wore on, and the Blue Devils returned to an effective ground game as part of its game-winning drive. For three consecutive plays as the clock ticked past the two-minute mark, the Blue Devils called on Jaylen Coleman to take the place of Jaquez Moore to fight for some crucial yards as Duke aimed to crack its kicker’s comfortable field-goal range. Elko praised Coleman postgame, as the graduate rusher picked up his eighth, ninth and 10th carries of the year in the biggest moment, stepping in for a banged-up teammate. There’s that next-man-up attitude at its peak.
Just a few plays after Loftis had uncorked a deep ball to Jordan Moore and drew a pass interference, he went right back over the air to find Hagans to both bring the ball a bit closer and draw a second major penalty, this time an unnecessary roughness, to get the Blue Devils down to the Demon Deacon 15-yard line and in firm position to win a gritty conference contest.
When kicker Todd Pelino drilled a 26-yard field goal through the uprights as time expired, it proved that Duke could successfully make do with what it had in spite of injuries, a stagnant pass attack or an opposing quarterback who had heated up.
“Just a tremendous statement on grit and toughness, and just stick-to-it-iveness, to do the things that we need to do to be successful,” Elko said. “... hopefully, nobody ever will question the character of this locker room again.”
But with Leonard out for an extended period of time (no timetable has been offered aside from Elko’s “a while”) and Duke still awaiting positive health updates from left tackle Graham Barton, Mausi and Jones, Duke is going to have to do way more than just make do. But its flexibility Thursday night suggested it has begun to mobilize these next guys up to get the Blue Devils to the other side of this rut and return to winning games according to the script, especially with a bowl victory — or one against rival North Carolina next Saturday — on the line.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.