DURHAM — For the second time this season, Duke needs to bounce back from a disappointing loss.
The Blue Devils have been part of three games this season where the stakes were enormous. They won the first, dominating Clemson in the season opener.
The next two haven’t gone as well. Duke led late against Notre Dame, but the Irish converted a fourth-and-long and then scored the go-ahead touchdown in a last-minute loss that saw Blue Devils starting quarterback Riley Leonard go down to injury.
Duke was able to rebound from that defeat, dominating NC State at home after a bye week. That allowed the Blue Devils to head to Florida State for the third game of their spotlight trilogy. Like the Notre Dame game, it appeared Duke was ready for prime time, leading heading into the fourth quarter and having Leonard move the team to the red zone with a chance to build on its lead.
Instead, Leonard reinjured the ankle. Duke was stopped in the shadow of the goal post, and the Seminoles drove 96 yards to take the lead.
“For three quarters, it was a heavyweight showdown,” said Duke coach Mike Elko. “We gave as much as we got and went toe-to-toe.”
Unfortunately for Duke, the game is longer than three quarters.
“In the fourth quarter, things got away from us,” he added.
Unlike the first two big-time games this season, the most recent showcase game was in Tallahassee, adding an entirely new aspect to the challenge Duke faced.
“It’s the first time this group of kids has played in that atmosphere, ever,” Elko said. “By and large, they handled it pretty well … for three quarters.”
Things snowballed in that fourth quarter. Backup quarterback Henry Belin IV, who managed the game well in the win over NC State, found the going much tougher against a Noles rally. He couldn’t finish off the drive that Leonard took most of the way there, throwing an incompletion in the end zone on fourth down. The next drive went just as poorly.
“We had a miscommunication on the first play,” Elko said. “Then we took a delay, and it’s second-and-19. That’s second-and-19 in the fourth quarter in Tallahassee. … It was unfortunate for Henry to have to play the part of the game that he played. It was never going to be our successful part. We said going in we needed to stay within the chains and stay out of must-pass situations, not allow them to tee off. And the part of the game when Henry played most was all of that. I don’t think we struggled because Henry was out there. I think we struggled because we lost control of the game.”
Belin finished the game just 1-of-7 passing, and with a likely dent in his self-confidence.
“There’s another level it has to go to in the fourth quarter, and that’s hard to simulate,” Elko said. “How much it feels frenetic when they start making plays in that type of environment.”
It was the first time Belin, and many of his teammates, faced that in a high-stakes game.
“It won’t be the last time,” Elko said. “We go right back into that environment this weekend.”
The Blue Devils go back on the road against another ranked ACC opponent, heading to Louisville to face a Cardinals team that knocked off Notre Dame and is currently tied for second place in the league with a 6-1 overall, including 3-1 in the ACC.
Duke still isn’t sure of its quarterback situation. Leonard didn’t return against Florida State and is once again day-to-day for the Louisville game.
Regardless of who starts, the Blue Devils will likely stay with last week’s offensive game plan, which leaned heavily on the running game. Jaquez Moore had a career-high 110 yards rushing, forming a one-two punch with Jordan Waters. Duke will also need its defense, which surrendered 420 yards to Florida State, to bounce back. Even after that performance in Tallahassee, the Blue Devils still rank third in the league in total defense and 15th nationally in pass defense.
They’ll be facing a Louisville team that also needs a bounce-back performance. The Cardinals followed up their Notre Dame win with a shocking loss to Pitt. They then had a bye week to stew before hosting the Blue Devils.
It’s a tough situation for Duke to walk into, but, as Elko said, “Certainly, no one’s going to feel sorry for us.”
“I told the team I was proud of how we went down there and how we played for three quarters,” the Duke coach added. “But we’re in this thing to finish.”