Extra point: Brotherhood, grit and resiliency power Duke football in Birmingham Bowl win against Troy

Duke football earned a 17-10 victory against Troy in the Birmingham Bowl Saturday.
Duke football earned a 17-10 victory against Troy in the Birmingham Bowl Saturday.

In Duke football’s last contest of the 2023 season, the Blue Devils got the job done with a victory in the Birmingham Bowl against Troy. The Blue Zone is here with three key takeaways, stats and a look ahead following the Duke win:

Three key takeaways

1. The ACC is still a power conference

It’s been a turbulent time of realignment in college sports, and the ACC has come across tough times. The football powerhouses have wanted out, with Florida State being one of the leaders of the charge. Yesterday, it filed a lawsuit against the conference, raising another round of discourse and conversation around the changing landscape of the sport. On the other hand, Troy and the Sun Belt have been ascendent in the ranks of non-power conferences, and Saturday’s matchup presented a battle of an up-and-comer against a middle-of-the-pack finisher in a sinking power conference. 

On the field, there was a clear difference in talent. The discrepancy in level between conferences was reflected at the line of scrimmage and in the depth of the skill positions. In the trenches, both teams tallied two sacks, but when watching the game, Duke’s offensive line was clearly hampered by the losses of Graham Barton and Jake Hornibrook. On the other side of the ball, without recording a gaudy amount of sacks, DeWayne Carter, Aeneas Peebles and company didn’t let Gunnar Watson have a chance to set his feet and deliver downfield all day long. Additionally, the defensive front held the nation’s leading rusher Kimani Vidal to 79 yards on 17 attempts, again speaking to a dominance up front that was displayed in a multitude of facets all afternoon long.

2. Men’s basketball isn’t the only brotherhood in town

Not many games this bowl season will feature players currently sitting in the transfer portal, let alone those who have already committed to playing for other teams next season. Notably, Peebles will be suiting up for Virginia Tech next season, and graduate student running back Jordan Waters will be down the road next year in the backfield for N. C. State. Additionally, safety Jaylen Stinson does not know who he will be playing for next season, but he stayed on the field for Tyler Santucci’s defense and tallied six tackles and was a major factor in the Blue Devils’ secondary. On the sideline, interim head coach Trooper Taylor was shown throughout the game providing energy and advocating for his players. In his postgame interview, he choked up while speaking about how much love he had for his group of men and how lucky he considered himself to be a part of this team.

3. No Elko, no Leonard, no problem

In the first game of the season, Duke’s defense suffocated a favored opponent led by an offense with a heavily-featured running back, while Riley Leonard and the offense did enough to secure the victory. Mike Elko was hailed as a defensive mastermind and Leonard a Heisman candidate. 110 days later, neither Elko nor Leonard could be found at the game, while Duke took home an underdog victory, with the defense shutting down college football’s leading rusher. Freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis and the offense did enough to win, and the Blue Devils closed the book on the tumultuous “Elko Era.” No one was hailed a genius or star, but the job was done. While he now resides in College Station, Texas, Elko left his fingerprints on this team to the core. He preached toughness and resilience, and that’s exactly what it took for Duke to win.

Three key stats

1. 0 points

The Trojans didn’t end up scoring on their second drive, despite great starting field position due to a fumble from Duke to set up Troy in the red zone. It did on its third play, as Vidal appeared to break off on a signature run, breaking multiple tackles en route to a 16-yard touchdown rush. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, the run was called back due to a holding penalty and was followed by an incompletion and a sack from Peebles to take the Trojans to the edge of field goal territory. The kick was missed, and Duke escaped. In retrospect, that call and missed field goal were crucial, as the teams fought close for the remainder of the game, and the Blue Devils escaped with the eventual seven-point victory.

2. 196 yards

The running back triumvirate of Jaquez Moore, Jordan Waters and Jaylen Coleman combined for 157 yards on the ground, along with 39 more in the air. The rushing yards came on 34 attempts, for an average of 3.9 yards per carry. This number is not exceptional, but when watching, the ground-and-pound style of attack visibly took the pressure off Loftis. The offense was not able to get into full throttle over the course of the game, but establishing the run certainly played a key part in the win. 

3. 37.8%

From 2000-2014, teams with a turnover margin of minus one had a record of 1468-2414 in college football. Combining this with the fact that Troy were 4.5-point favorites and Duke’s strong rushing game was only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, without knowing the outcome of the game, the picture would seem pretty bleak for Duke. The statistics weren’t flashy for the Blue Devils, but grit got the job done.

Looking ahead

Incoming head coach Manny Diaz got good news recently, as Texas’s backup quarterback Maalik Murphy committed to Duke through the transfer portal. Murphy already has game experience with a college football playoff team this season and has a good case to be the best incoming quarterback the Blue Devils have ever seen. With this addition, the future comes into a bit more focus, as Murphy will join the offensive skill core of Jaquez Moore and Jordan Moore. Incoming offensive coordinator Jonathan Brewer will lead the schemes for this group next season and will have plenty of talent at his disposal. On the other side of the ball, the future is a bit murkier. Carter will depart for the NFL, Peebles and Stinson will be conference foes, and Dorian Mausi will be at Auburn. There will be notable returners in Chandler Rivers and Tre Freeman II, but the defense will look different on the whole. However, Diaz is a skilled defensive coach and will certainly make sure the corps stays competitive.


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