Duke beats Wake, makes coach of year case for Mike Elko

The Blue Devils picked up a 34-31 win in their regular season finale

Duke coach Mike Elko waves to fans as he walks off the field after the Blue Devils beat Wake Forest 34-31 on Saturday in Durham. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

DURHAM — After being picked to finish last in the ACC, the Duke Blue Devils capped off an 8-4 regular season with a come-from-behind 34-31 win over Wake Forest. The Blue Devils finished 5-3 in the ACC, good for second place in the Coastal Division in coach Mike Elko’s first season.

Replacing David Cutcliffe, who rebuilt Duke’s program from the worst in Power Five, Elko had a rebuilding job of his own after the Blue Devils managed just five wins over the last two seasons, including a 1-17 record in ACC games.

The Blue Devils are headed back to a bowl game for the first time since 2018, and Elko has emerged as a candidate for ACC Coach of the Year.

“If it’s not him, I don’t know who it is,” said defensive tackle DeWayne Carter.

The win over Wake was a microcosm of the Duke season as the Blue Devils scored with 2:04 remaining in the game to pull ahead of the Deacs. Wake Forest had scored 14 unanswered points to take a lead in the fourth quarter.

“Our kids just keep fighting,” Elko said. “I don’t know how many times we can say it. I don’t know how many times they can prove it. They will not blink. They will not stop coming. Tonight kind of epitomized the whole season in that regard. We had ups and downs. There were times we looked good and times we didn’t, but we just don’t stop. We keep coming.”

Quarterback Riley Leonard, a sophomore in his first year as starting quarterback, outdueled record-setting Wake veteran quarterback Sam Hartman.

Hartman was 26 of 42 for 357 yards and three scores, while Leonard went 29 of 41 for 391 yards and four touchdowns. Leonard found Sahmir Hagans in the corner of the end zone from 20 yards out for the game-winning score. It was the second hook-up between the two on the day. Leonard threw 30 yards to him earlier in the game and added a 30-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Moore and a 46-yarder to Jalon Calhoun.

“Our quarterback is special,” said Elko. “He’s had a special year. He’s a special competitor. Every time we get into these big moments, he delivers.”

Calhoun finished with 11 catches for 174 yards, while Hagans had eight for 139. The duo combined for all 50 yards of offense on the game-winning drive.

“The thing that stands out most to me is we go into every single game expecting to win,” Leonard said. “Trusting that if we do our job, we’re going to win. In years past, some guys had predetermined things in their heads, but this year, there was not one game we went into thinking we were going to lose. The winning mentality in this Duke organization is definitely the biggest change this year.”

Now, as the Blue Devils wait to find out their next game, the next win for the team might be the league’s top coaching honor.