Turnovers helping Duke turn page
Blue Devils confident turnovers will keep bouncing their way with plus-5 margin on the season
DURHAM – The No. 2 area for Duke’s football team to excel in each game is special teams, and Jaylen Stinson’s 67-yard kick return to open Saturday night’s game against North Carolina A&T was certainly a boost.
Not to diminish that or anything else Duke does on special teams; but the No. 1 area is turnovers and given where this program was in that regard for the last couple of seasons, that’s what jumps off of the page.
“It’s three straight games that we’ve won the turnover battle and it’s three straight wins,” coach Mike Elko said following Saturday night’s 49-20 win. “That’s got to be our recipe.
“I’ve said that to you guys, I’ve said it to the team. We know that’s our recipe for success.”
Elko and his staff targeted turnovers not simply because it was a weakness in the last couple of seasons, but because that’s proved to be the quickest way to turn around a program’s success under a new staff.
So far, so good.
Duke has won the turnover battle – 2-0, 3-1 and 2-1 – in each of its first three games. It’s the first three-game stretch with three turnover margin wins since the first three games of the 2018 season. Duke was minus-7 last season and minus-19 in 2020.
Of Duke’s last four takeaways, nickel Brandon Johnson has been involved in three of them.
The second-year defensive back had an interception in the fourth quarter at Northwestern, and then recovered the game-sealing fumble in the end zone. Against N.C. A&T he had a sack and forced fumble on the Aggies’ first possession of the second half.
There’s a natural luck factor involved with turnovers – but there are also ways of emphasizing it, and the Blue Devils have clearly taken to the latter.
“We work on turnovers in practice every day,” Johnson said on Saturday night. “Definitely (have been) in the right place at the right time, so I’ve been blessed.”
The football is an oblong object and bounces funny directions – that’s not breaking any news.
But through the first three games, Duke has proven adept at punching the ball loose – and then pouncing on the ball.
Opponents have fumbled eight times against Duke and six of those times, the Blue Devils have recovered. Comparing it to last season, when opponents fumbled 23 times against Duke and the Blue Devils recovered six of those, helps show how much more of a focus turnovers have become.
“Sometimes you get lucky … they botch a snap. I think Temple fumbled an exchange. Those things over the course of time are going to weigh themselves out,” Elko said. “I feel like the majority of turnovers this year, we’ve caused and we’ve forced them.
“And so that in your mind at least makes you feel comfortable that you can continue to go out and do that.”
On the other side of fumbles, Duke’s offensive players have been charged with two – and both times, the Blue Devils have recovered. The only giveaways by Duke’s offense have been interceptions thrown by Riley Leonard – and one of those was through the hands and off the helmet of Eli Pancol against Northwestern, the other a miscommunication between Leonard and Sahmir Hagans.
The way Duke has come out of the gates – leads of 24-0, 21-0 and 21-0 to start games – factors into how careful the Blue Devils have been with the ball.
While starts like that might not happen in 12 games this year, so far it’s meant that Duke hasn’t had to chase any opponents on the scoreboard and force the issue offensively.
“We haven’t had to chase games, and the teams that we’ve played have had to chase the game a little bit,” Elko said. “When you’re protecting the lead and controlling the game, it’s a lot easier to be smart with the football than when you’re getting behind, having to force things.”
The six fumble recoveries on defense plus two offensive recoveries means Duke has more fumble recoveries than any team in the country. Three teams – LSU, Liberty and Michigan State – have six apiece.