football Edit

Confident Duke steams forward

Blue Devils pushing all the right buttons so far

Eli Pancol, top, and Nicky Dalmolin celebrate after Dalmolin's touchdown on the first play from scrimmage against N.C. A&T.
Eli Pancol, top, and Nicky Dalmolin celebrate after Dalmolin's touchdown on the first play from scrimmage against N.C. A&T. (Jaylynn Nash/USA Today Sports Images)

DURHAM – The final score is about what you’d expect.

The ACC team beats the in-state FCS team 49-20 in a score that isn’t quite indicative of when the competitive part of Saturday night’s game at Wallace Wade Stadium ended. Duke’s second-team defense gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns and that’s a concern, but it shouldn’t overshadow that Duke had a 42-6 lead entering that last quarter.

It’s the manner in which it happened that matters most, though.

Against the same N.C. A&T that marched the opening drive down Duke’s throats last season, the Blue Devils left little doubt that they’d control this game wire-to-wire.

Pick your starting point: Jaylen Stinson’s game-opening 67-yard kick return or Riley Leonard’s 38-yard touchdown pass to Nicky Dalmolin on the first play from scrimmage or DeWayne Carter’s 35-yard fumble return for a touchdown – everything about this game spelled blowout.

And everything about this Duke team through three games speaks to a confidence level that’s been an early staple in these beginning stages of coach Mike Elko’s tenure.

“Confidence is a funny thing because confidence only comes from work,” Elko said. “People can pretend like they have confidence and they can act like they have confidence, but confidence comes from knowing that you’re ready.”

The Blue Devils (3-0) have certainly been ready in each of these first three games: The lead against Temple was 24-0 midway through the second quarter; against Northwestern it was 21-0 in the first minute of the second quarter; and against N.C. A&T it was 21-0 about halfway through the first quarter.

“The only way you get true confidence when you walk on the field is you know what you’ve done to get yourself ready to play the game,” Elko said. “Our kids know that they’ve invested more into this football program in the last nine months.

“It’s been well-written about the impact that COVID had and how things had spiraled a little bit. They know what they’ve done to get themselves ready for this season.”

That was the preparation and process; the results have Duke looking different from recent seasons past.

Leonard has played just about flawless through three games, in spite of having thrown two interceptions. One of those picks was through the hands and off of Eli Pancol’s helmet in the end zone against Northwestern; the other was against the Aggies on a miscommunication with Sahmir Hagans.

Leonard’s stat line through three games: 48 of 66 (72.7%) for 723 yards (10.9 yards/attempt) and five touchdowns. He’s rushed 22 times for 147 yards (6.7 yards/rush) and two scores.

If you guessed that Leonard’s hot start to his career as Duke’s starter stems from confidence in the preparation, you’d be right.

“Coming into every week, we know exactly what the defense is going to give us,” Leonard said.

There are cracks in the foundation; there are bound to be this early in a rebuilding effort. Duke’s second-team defense giving up chunk plays in the fourth quarter isn’t a great sign.

Still, it’s a team that’s matched last season’s win total by Sept. 17.

Sure, last season the record was 3-1 instead of 3-0 when the wheels came off. But how much more confidence is there that this team is different than last season?

“They know what they’re doing in practice, they know how hard they’re practicing,” Elko said. “That’s what breeds the confidence, so obviously if we can continue to do that, they’ll continue to play at a good level.”

Toto, it’s no longer just a feeling that two unbeaten teams will square off in Kansas next week.