Calm Blue Devils come back for win over Hokies

Duke got its seventh win with a 27-7 over Virginia Tech

Duke's Riley Leonard (13) carries the ball ahead of Justin Pickett (77) and Virginia Tech's Jaylen Griffin (41) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

DURHAM — Midway through the second quarter, Duke quarterback Riley Leonard took a snap, and things immediately got hairy.

With an offensive line that was reshuffled after veteran Jacob Monk was lost for the year, somehow a miscommunication resulted in no one blocking Virginia Tech pass rusher Keonta Jenkins. Leonard saw him coming with a full head of steam.

Most freshman quarterbacks would have ducked and taken the sack in an exercise in self-preservation. A few risk-takers might have spun out of the way, falling even farther backward and giving up even more yardage when the sack inevitably occurred.

Some inexperienced passers might have cut and run, only to get taken down from behind, or rushed a bad throw, risking an interception.

Leonard took one step forward. It was enough to allow Jenkins to speed past him, tantalizingly out of reach. Leonard then reset his feet and began his reads, checking a receiver over the middle, who happened to be covered.

That was all the time he had. He glanced over at Jenkins, who had adjusted his trajectory and was bearing down on him from behind, then calmly tossed the football out of bounds, where it bounced off a referee.

The play was only an incompletion, but it symbolized the day for the Blue Devils. Things didn’t go well from the outset, but Duke showed a calm and maturity beyond its years and managed to grind out a 27-7 win over the Hokies for their seventh victory of the season.

Much like the incompletion that wasn’t a disaster, the game started out badly for Duke. Leonard missed on a potential deep pass early and the offense went three-and-out. Virginia Tech hit a 53-yard touchdown pass on its second snap to take the early lead. When Leonard moved the offense on another later drive, it ended with a leaping interception by the Hokies at the 2-yard line.

“They responded really well to the bad opening drive,” said coach Mike Elko, who became the first Duke head coach since 1994 to win seven games in his first season with the Blue Devils. “The thing wasn’t tilted in our favor to start the game for sure. We answered, and I thought we got some stops from the defense, and we needed that. That got the momentum back. Then the offense was able to get it going. We had a couple of drives that we kind of beat ourselves on. We threw the pick in the end zone and had the missed field goal, or else I think we were even more efficient on offense today. The defense curved the momentum of that first half for sure. They got us back in rhythm and got us back under control in the game.”

The drive that started with Leonard calmly sidestepping the pass rusher stalled at the Virginia Tech 37, but Elko left his young quarterback on the field for a fourth-and-7. Leonard found Jontavis Robertson for 13 yards to move the chains, then hit Nicky Dalmolin for a 24-yard score on the next play. It put Duke on top to stay.

“Confidence to me is the greatest thing in all of sports,” Leonard said. “Whenever your head coach is telling you to go for it on 4th-and-8, 4th-and-10, it kind of proves that he trusts you and as a quarterback. That’s all I need to hear. Just super happy he was able to put his trust in me and we went out there and executed.”

Leonard finished with 262 yards, two touchdown passes and another score rushing, becoming the first Duke quarterback since 2013 with 10 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns in a season.

The win kept Duke alive in the ACC Coastal Division, at least for a few hours, 4-2 in the conference and 7-3 overall. More importantly, it was a step forward for a young team that is growing up quickly in its coach’s rookie season.