Before the Blue Devils opened their season on Friday to a warm, sunny atmosphere and a crowd of more than 20,000 fans at Wallace Wade Stadium, there were no definite expectations for what to look for in the team. Duke has seen considerable change after a dry spell in recent seasons. He didn’t win a conference game in 2021 and just one in 2020. In the two seasons, the Blue Devils had just five wins. They simply struggled to stay afloat as challengers to any of the opponents they faced.
However, with a new direction under former Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko, fans and analysts alike were curious as to how the Blue Devils would fare. Duke began some intense training at fall camp and, coupled with Elko’s new coaching staff, there appears to be a new recipe for success. After the Elko era began with a 30-0 victory against Temple, that recipe has already shown great promise.
Starting quarterback Riley Leonard proved capable under pressure, registering 328 passing yards against the Owls. Teammates Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters also helped by registering more than 30 rushing yards each. With Duke keeping the Owls on their toes and avoiding too much movement, the start couldn’t have been more perfect.
Now, the Blue Devils face an up-and-coming team at Northwestern. Last year, the Blue Devils stood out in their competition against the Wildcats, defeating them 30-23 in Durham thanks to a formidable defensive performance that featured five forced turnovers. Former Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, wide receiver Jake Bobo and running back Mataeo Durant were the core of the offense, which finished with 558 total yards to Northwestern’s 407. However, with new headliners for the Blue Devils like Leonard, senior wide receiver Jalon Calhoun and junior linebacker Dorian Mausi, much will be different this time. A win could be more of a challenge for the Blue Devils.
Although neither team has had much exposure — Northwestern has also only played a single game — the Wildcats are expected to bring a lot to the table. In Northwestern’s only game against Nebraska, the Wildcats won 31-28. Considering they lost 56-7 to the same team last year, there already seems to be a lot of improvement.
Although Northwestern started slowly in the first quarter, they eventually caught up and kept that momentum going through the rest of the contest. Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski, along with junior running backs Evan Hull and Cam Porter, made a lot of noise on the offensive end. Hilinski finished with 328 yards on the day, while Hull and Porter had 119 and 94, respectively.
The receiving end had no trouble helping Hilinski and Nebraska had no interceptions in the game. Coupled with an admirable defensive performance, led by junior Bryce Gallagher with nine solo tackles, the Wildcats had 59 tackles to slow down the Cornhuskers.
As the Blue Devils look to keep Elko’s tenure on track, playing smart and protecting their quarterback seems like the best bet. Given that Northwestern has a duo in Hull and Porter who can move the ball on the ground, Duke will likely need to tackle well on Saturday afternoon and win the turnover battle once again.
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| Editorial Assistant Blue Zone
Ana Young is a sophomore at Trinity and the Blue Zone’s assistant editor for volume 118 of The Chronicle.