ChronSports' Top 10 of 2023 — No. 1: Duke football steamrolls No. 9 Clemson on opening night in historic upset, causing field-storming

Students storm the field after Duke's surprise win against Clemson.
Students storm the field after Duke's surprise win against Clemson.

As the bow gets tied on 2023, The Chronicle’s sports department is reviewing the biggest storylines in Duke athletics throughout the year. Each day until the calendar flips to January, we will cover two of the most significant moments in Blue Devil sports from 2023.

And finally, at No. 1: Duke football opened its season with one of the biggest victories in program history, a 28-7 thumping of Clemson that gave it a spot in the AP Poll, caused a field storming, and set the stage for the potential to achieve one of its most promising, culture-changing seasons ever. For the full list, click here.

As the sun set on Labor Day and the lights of Wallace Wade Stadium rose, Duke embarked on a new journey. The Blue Devils were coming off a year of improvement, where a 9-4 record and bowl victory reflected a turning of the tides within the program. With several key players returning, hype was growing around head coach Mike Elko’s team, and students and fans hoped the upward trend would continue into the 2023 season. 

The first test of that campaign loomed large, though, as Clemson came to town. Head coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers had been something of a dynasty in the ACC for nearly a decade, winning seven of the last eight conference titles. Being picked by many to win the conference again and ranked No. 9 in the nation, it was clear Duke would have its hands full with Clemson, but despite the tough matchup, there were whispers of hope for a possible upset. 

Perhaps it was that hope and curiosity that drove the Duke student body to Wallace Wade in full force that night. The Cameron Crazies, usually dormant in the fall, transformed into Wade Wackos, packing the student section well before kickoff donning personalized class jerseys and light-up devil horns. The student section was not alone filling out the away side at Brooks Field though, as Clemson fans loaded their seats. The wave of orange, complete with the Tiger Band, only added to the gravity of the primetime matchup that brought out the Goodyear Blimp. 

Duke kicked off to open the game, putting the ball in the hands of Clemson sophomore quarterback Cade Klubnik and his talented running back Will Shipley. Two plays and the Tigers had a first down, but after forcing a third down, a Klubnik pass over the middle was almost intercepted by graduate safety Jeremiah Lewis, forcing the Tigers to punt. The vaunted Duke defense had its first stop of the year. 

After a solid Jalon Calhoun return, out trod junior quarterback Riley Leonard, one of the biggest returners for the team. Leonard led a massive drive, highlighted by three completions that helped bring the Blue Devils down to the Clemson 10-yard line. Sophomore kicker Todd Pelino drilled a 22-yard field goal that put Duke on the board first. 

The Tigers then drove into Blue Devil territory, but had to settle for a 41-yard field goal attempt to tie. Clemson sent out redshirt freshman Robert Gunn III to attempt his first career field goal, but Duke’s special teams unit had other plans. Wesley Williams got his hand out for the block, and the Tigers were still scoreless. 

The two teams traded punts before another Pelino field goal, this time from 42 yards out, went through the uprights to put the Blue Devils up 6-0 early in the second quarter. Duke’s defense then forced another punt, but Calhoun muffed it, giving Clemson prime field position at the 18-yard line. Klubnik soon dumped it off to Shipley, who dove into the endzone. The point after was good, and the Tigers had taken the lead. That’s how it stayed until the half, with the Blue Devils fumbling in Clemson territory with 15 seconds left, preventing another Pelino field goal attempt. 

Duke got the ball to start the second half, and got going early. On the first play, Leonard cut to the outside with a shifty run, getting a first down, immediately followed by an 11-yard run into Tiger territory by running back Jordan Waters. However, on third down, Leonard faced severe pressure, getting wrapped up by a Clemson defender with two others providing pressure. But just as it seemed he would go down, the 6-foot-4, 212-pound quarterback stumbled free, breaking the tackle and sprinting into open space where he broke to the outside, stiff-arming another defender as he trucked down the sideline all the way to the back of the end zone. Pandemonium hit the student section as Leonard hit a little shrug, celebrating what ESPN called “one of the best plays of Week 1.” 

The Tigers struck back with a big play of their own, as running back Phil Mafah surged down into the Duke red zone with a 49-yard charge. Klubnik ran down to the 1-yard line, but the gritty Blue Devil defense came through yet again, stopping Clemson three times before forcing a field goal that was also tipped wide. Duke punted on their next drive, and again the Tigers got inside the 10, this time looking to put points on the board. But a miscue on a handoff sent the ball to the ground, which the Blue Devils picked up. 

Duke punted, but Clemson moved the ball well into the red zone for a third time. The Tigers had a first-and-goal as the fourth quarter began, but Mafah fumbled the ball, which was picked up by senior safety Jaylen Stinson and returned all the way to the Clemson 35-yard line. Runs by Waters and Jaquez Moore got Duke inside the 10, where Moore broke to the pylon for a score. A completed two-point conversion toss to Calhoun put the Blue Devils up 21-7 with 10 minutes left in the game. 

Duke’s defense forced a turnover on downs, then the Blue Devils punted. On the fourth play of the Tigers’ drive, Shipley failed to haul in a pass, tipping it right to Duke linebacker Dorian Mausi. Leonard took over, and on third-and-8, Waters found a hole and cruised to the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown, putting the exclamation point on the upset. With the reality of the night setting in, the roof blew off the student section, and preparations began for a rush of the field. 

Not done just yet, the Blue Devil defense came through again, forcing a turnover on downs after seven plays, capping a remarkable performance and putting the ball in Duke’s hands to close the storybook. “Seven Nation Army” blared as students spewed onto the sidelines, bouncing around and waiting for the cue. Leonard spiked the ball and the floodgates opened as thousands hit the grass, capping one of the program’s biggest victories in its history

The Blue Devils entered the AP Poll the following week for the first time since 2018, and Leonard entered Heisman Trophy talks. Seen by many as a basketball powerhouse, Duke proved it had the potential to be more than that, and the program sent shockwaves through the conference and country, positioning itself for one of its best seasons ever. Behind the win, the Blue Devils jumped out to a 4-0 start and were named the hosts of ESPN College GameDay for their next game against No. 11 Notre Dame. 

Some will view the 2023 Duke football campaign as ultimately disappointing, with the close loss to the Irish and the injury of Leonard and other key defensive players hurting the team down the stretch. The later departure of Elko, transfer of Leonard and final 8-5 record left a more sour taste on the season than many anticipated after the ecstasy of the Week 1 win. However, the monumental upset of Clemson and subsequent field storming that fateful Labor Day night will be cemented in Duke football history forever.

Read more:

Scenes from Duke football's remarkable victory against Clemson

WEEK WON: Duke football explodes in second half, thrashes Clemson in season opener

How social media reacted to Duke football's win against Clemson

ChronChat: What does Duke football's win against Clemson mean for the rest of the season?

'Everything school': Students excited to embrace Duke football culture after Clemson rout

In win against Clemson, Duke football's defense proves that it can stand firm — even against the country's best

'Goosebumps': How students remember Duke football's field storming after upset win against Clemson

The Chronicle's 2023 Duke football season preview


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