It had been a while, three weeks shy of a year to be exact, since Duke walked off a football field following a win.
That number, as in 49 weeks, shows the importance of Duke’s 30-0 win over Temple on Friday night.
“We asked them to believe in a first-time head coach and a brand-new staff,” Duke coach Mike Elko said, after getting a win in his first game as a head coach at any level. “They didn’t have to, they really didn’t. They’ve bought into everything we’ve asked them to do. I told you guys, I think our culture is great, and so they were able to go out there and get rewarded and that was awesome.”
The numbers over the past two seasons at Duke were downright ugly, which is why Elko was hired to replace the ousted David Cutcliffe.
The Blue Devils lost their final eight games of last season. They’d gone 5-18 in the past two seasons, losing 17 of 18 ACC games.
To add perspective, Temple, itself with a new coach after going 3-9 last season, does not have the talent of an ACC program.
Duke isn’t in position to be picky, though. The long drought between wins is over.
The Blue Devils played a turnover-free game after committing 60 turnovers in 23 games over the past two seasons.
They posted a shutout, something they hadn’t done since blasting N.C. Central 55-0 in 2015. It had been since 1989, in a 41-0 win over North Carolina, that Duke had shut out a fellow FBS level team.
Will this carry over to the stern challenge Duke faces next, at Northwestern, on Saturday? That will be a tougher ask.
That said, here’s a deeper look at how the Blue Devils found success in their opener, giving hope more wins are possible.
Really, how good was Duke’s defense?
Duke held Temple to just 179 total yards. That’s the first time the Blue Devils limited an FBS team to less than 200 yards on offense since 2017 when Northwestern gained 191 yards while losing 41-17 to Duke.
Pro Football Focus assigned Duke’s defense a strong 77.5 score. That’s the best for Duke in any game since 2019. The Blue Devils were only 70 or better in three games over the past two seasons.
Rival UNC had only one such game last season and three in 2020.
So, a historic performance.
How did Duke do it?
After Elko and his staff emphasized better tackling, the Blue Devils tackled far better than they did last season. PFF gave Duke a 75.5 rating on its tackling against Temple.
Last season, Duke topped that score in only one of its 12 games. The Blue Devils were at 53.7 or lower in eight of those games, bottoming out at 38.7 in a 62-22 loss to Louisville last November.
Duke physically dominated Temple up front, scoring an 80.6 on run defense, according to PFF. The Owls gained only 65 rushing yards, averaging 2.24 yards per carry.
Linebackers Dorian Mausi (six tackles) and Shaka Heyward (five) led Duke. But Mausi admitted the linemen, like tackle DeWayne Carter (1.5 tackles for loss), made that possible.
“When your defensive line is having a performance like that,” Mausi said, “it allows the whole back seven to play free. That’s awesome.”
Such an overall defensive performance has become the norm for Elko-coached teams.
At Texas A&M last season, where he was defensive coordinator, the Aggies defense had six games with a PFF score of 70 or better.
Protecting the ball
There are turnovers and there are also plays that likely could have been turnovers.
PFF calls that a turnover-worthy play (TWP), which is a pass that has a high percentage chance to be intercepted or a poor job of taking care of the ball and fumbling.
It’s part of how PFF grades how quarterbacks perform in the passing game.
Riley Leonard, Duke’s starting quarterback, had zero turnover-worthy plays against Temple.
Let’s compare that to Duke’s 2020 season, when it led the nation with 39 turnovers in 11 games. Quarterback Chase Brice had only one game without a TWP while turning in 22 TWPs for the season.
Last year’s Duke starter, Gunnar Holmberg, had four games with no TWPs and 10 for the season.
By comparison, this season’s ACC preseason player of the year, N.C. State quarterback Devin Leary, had nine TWPs last season. He turned in five games with zero.
Catching the ball
While Leonard did a great job of not putting the ball in danger, Duke’s receivers excelled at hauling in his passes when they were on target.
The Blue Devils had zero dropped passes in the game. Last season, Duke’s receivers dropped 22 passes. That included four each by wide receiver Eli Pancol and tight end Nicky Dalmolin and three by wide receiver Jalon Calhoun.
All three of those players started against Temple on Friday night and avoided any drops.
Calhoun caught six passes for 90 yards against Temple, while Pancol caught four for 49 and Dalmolin caught two to gain 7 yards.
This story was originally published September 3, 2022 3:02 PM.
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