Unbeaten Duke dealing with nice problems to have

The surprising Blue Devils are preparing Kansas, which is also 3-0

Duke's Jordan Waters is averaging 7.0 yards per carry through three games this season, teaming with fellow running backs Jaylen Coleman and Jaquez Moore and quarterback Riley Leonard to help give the Blue Devils more than 200 yards per game on the ground so far this season. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

DURHAM — Teams seem to have figured out Duke football’s big weakness this year: Let them get up by 21 points and they tend to let up.

In each of the first three games, the Blue Devils have hit a bit of a lull after going up by three touchdowns. In the opener against Temple, Duke led 24-0 at the half then managed just six more points in the final 30 minutes. After going up 21-0 at Northwestern, Duke allowed the Wildcats to score the next 16 points. And against NC A&T, the Blue Devils scored 21 points in the first 8:07 then played the Aggies to a nearly-even 28-20 score the rest of the way.

That’s hardly the only problem new Duke coach Mike Elko faces. Each of the last two weeks, the Blue Devils have lost the time of possession battle. Northwestern had the ball nearly 10 minutes more than Duke, and A&T won time of possession by a nearly four-minute margin.

The reason is obvious: Duke had scoring drives of 1:54, 2:00, 2:13 and 2:44 against Northwestern. In the A&T game, the Blue Devils reached the end zone in nine seconds, 45 seconds, 2:15 and on a fumble return on defense. Clearly, they’re scoring too fast and sending their defense back onto the field too quickly.

Still, these are good problems to have for a team coming off of 3-9 and 2-9 seasons that is 3-0 to start the year.

Consider: Before Duke’s 21-0 woes in the first three games, the Blue Devils had led by a 21-0 or greater margin just three times in the last 60 games. They also scored 10 points or fewer in half of their last eight games heading into this year, so scoring quickly — or at all — seems like a problem that can be overlooked, at least for a while.

But a head coach is never pleased, and Elko addressed both “issues” heading into this week’s game — a road game against a Kansas team that has had a start even more surprising than Duke’s.

“I don’t want to trade starting fast. I know that,” Elko said. “So, if what you’re telling me is all I have to do is get up 21 and then let the team come back a little bit, I’d rather have that than the other way for sure.”

All jokes aside, Elko did scold his team at halftime on Saturday after the Blue Devils scored just seven points in the final 22 minutes of the first half.

“We had a little bit of a lull in the second quarter, which has obviously been a bit of our challenge,” he said. “So I really challenged them at halftime to come out in the third quarter and get back to playing the way we were capable of. We did score on two straight possessions and really kind of put the game to bed.”

On the other hand, Duke scored just seven points in the final 23 minutes and allowed A&T to put up 14 points in the fourth quarter.

“I just think it’s consistency,” Elko said. “We talk to them about the game of football and how you put your head down and you execute, and that’s really what you have to do, play in and play out for over three hours. … I think sometimes maybe we relax a little bit at times more than I would like us to.

“Having said that, we still scored a touchdown all but one drive when Riley [Leonard] was out there at quarterback. I think some of it is expectations, too, as like I said after the game, we’re not going to score a touchdown every single time we have the ball no matter what it looks like on the first three drives.”

And about that “scoring too fast” problem?

“I want to score,” Elko said. “So however we have to go about scoring we’re going to do it. I’ve said this before, we’re going to play offense in a way that allows us to score.”

Duke will need touchdowns, fast or slow, on Saturday against a Kansas team that has put up 159 points in three weeks, with wins over West Virginia and Houston in the last two games.

While Duke has struggled the last few years, Kansas is coming out of a decade-long desert. The Jayhawks are looking for their fourth win, which would be the first time since 2009 they’ve won as many. They had back-to-back 50-point outings to open the season after hitting the half-century mark just twice in the previous 68 games. Kansas opponents scored 50 or more 16 times over that span, including four straight weeks in 2020.

So now Duke faces another issue — how to deal with the pressure of a big game. It’s a problem Elko hoped he’d face but probably wasn’t expecting in his first month on the job.

Just add it to the list of concerns on a successful Duke team that just seems riddled with them.