DURHAM — Duke quarterback Riley Leonard took a first down snap and saw Northwestern defensive back Ore Adeyi bearing down on him, unblocked, on a blitz.
Leonard took one step forward, looked for an open man, and decided to run the ball. Sixteen yards downfield, linebacker Xander Mueller wrapped him up, but Leonard ran through the tackle and kept churning. At the 26-yard line, Devin Turner took his shot, but Leonard met him with a stiff arm and stepped out of bounds after another three yards, exchanging shoves with the defensive back after the run.
It was a 33-yard gain for Leonard, leading to a Blue Devils field goal and delivering an important message as Duke rolled to a 38-14 win over the Wildcats to move to 3-0 on the season.
“We wanted to establish our physical identity,” Duke coach Mike Elko said. “Any time you play a Big Ten team, that’s important.”
In addition to Leonard’s bruising run, 5-foot-8 safety Jalen Stinson delivered a third-down tackle of Wildcats quarterback Ben Bryant, then went nose to … sternum … with tight end Marshall Lang, who took issue with the violent hit on his quarterback. Despite giving up six inches and 68 pounds, Stinson didn’t back down.
Leonard led all rushers in the game with 97 yards and a 7.5 yards per carry average. Two other Duke running backs, Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore, combined for 146 yards and each averaged over 6 yards a carry.
Waters scored two touchdowns rushing and Leonard ran for two more as the Blue Devils dominated the ground game.
“We outrushed them 268 yards to 104,” Elko pointed out. “We started fast, got a lead, and that’s what you want to do in a game like this.”
When Northwestern showed signs of finding the Big Ten smash-mouth style, Elko was quick to step in.
After Duke scored the game’s first 17 points, Northwestern put together its best drive of the day, a 15-play touchdown drive consuming nearly eight and a half minutes right before halftime.
Elko called it “a lull on defense.”
“We slipped up a little bit at the end of the half and I didn’t like that long drive,” Elko said. “We gave up we gave up too many (third-down) conversions, and I think they were able to kind of get back in it a little bit.”
So Elko delivered a halftime message.
“We challenged the kids at halftime to come out and really establish themselves in the third quarter and put the game away,” he said. “Finish this thing in the third quarter.”
Duke took the second half kickoff and ran a nine-play, 80-yard drive that took nearly five minutes off the clock, ending with a Leonard touchdown run. After forcing a punt in five plays, Duke went 94 yards in 12 snaps, eating up five and a half minutes of game time to get Leonard in the end zone again.
Leonard added 219 yards through the air on 15-of-20 passing. Jalon Calhoun led all receivers with 112 yards.
Halfway to bowl eligibility, Duke now goes on the road for a nonconference tilt with UConn next week.
“I’m sure they’ll be ready to go next week, and we’re going to have to match their intensity,” Elko said.
And if they don’t, the Duke coach will have something to say at the half.