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Blue Devils dominant in rout of Northwestern

Duke’s Peyton Jones (21) scores a touchdown ahead of Northwestern’s Devin Turner (9) during the second half of a game in Durham on Saturday, Sept. 16. AP

DURHAM – One of the great, stirring college football fight songs is “Go U Northwestern.” (Especially for a Wildcat alum – even though that was a long, long, long time ago.)

Northwestern didn’t bring its band to Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday afternoon, so the Duke Marching Band did honors by playing the Wildcats’ famous song during the pregame. Duke then proceeded to outplay the Wildcats up and down the football field. The final margin, 38-14, wasn’t even that close.

This Devils football edition (3-0) is starting to look like the real deal. Even if the opponent was unimposing – The Purple lost for the fifth straight time in the series – this wasn’t Lafayette. It is a Big Ten Conference team that Duke soundly beat.

Jordan Waters ran for a 24-yard touchdown on the Blue Devils’ first series and head coach Mike Elko’s Duke teams have never lost a game when scoring first. Elko is now 12-4 (.750) through the first 16 games of his tenure with the Blue Devils, marking the best 16-game start to a head coaching stint in school history.

Quarterback Riley Leonard was special again, completing 8-of-10 passes for 117 yards in the Devils’ first three possessions and making one of his signature runs, breaking tackles for 33-yard jaunt. 

“He’s the ultimate eraser,” Elko said. “Anytime you have one of those, it makes a lot of bad plays look really good sometimes.”

Leonard completed 15-of-20 passes (75%) for 219 yards (10.95 yards per throw) and rushed for another 97 (7.5 average) and two TDs. You can’t ask your quarterback to do more than that.

Duke’s O-line dominated, creating holes for the team to rush for 268 yards, a healthy 6.7 yards per carry. Duke never punted in the first half while the Wildcats punted four of their five possessions. The Blue Devils opened the second half with drives of 84 and 90 yards to turn the game into a 31-7 rout.

Northwestern’s fight song exhorts the Wildcards to “break right through that line,” but the Devils D-line was a wall, limiting NU to 43 rushing yards in the first half for a paltry 2.2 average. By the time the fourth quarter started, and the contest was effectively over, Northwestern had been held to 68 yards rushing and a total offense of 177 yards. 

“I thought we wanted to establish our physical identity,” Elko said. “Anytime you play a Big Ten team that’s really, really important to make sure you control the line of scrimmage.”

The Wildcats’ numbers improved somewhat at the end of the fourth quarter as both coaches cleared their benches and the Wildcats added 90 total yards in the final quarter, as well as a touchdown. Still, it was an impressive defensive performance, holding NU to only 104 yards on the ground and 163 through the air. Duke has now allowed an average of only 9.3 points per game, second in the ACC.

The Wildcats’ refrain urges them to “fight for victory,” but that was a wish and a dream on Saturday.

Northwestern’s program has of course undergone off-field distractions, resulting in the appointment of interim head coach David Braun. NU was universally picked to finish last in the Big Ten West so the Duke victory must be taken in context. But good teams win the games they are supposed to win and the Blue Devils did that emphatically Saturday afternoon.

The 18th-ranked Blue Devils travel to winless UConn next weekend but will then play their biggest game of the season, so far, against ninth-ranked Notre Dame in Durham. Duke still must face No. 4-ranked Florida State – in Tallahassee no less – and that 17th-ranked team down the road in Chapel Hill, as well as an unranked but pesky N.C. State team, among other tests.

It’s a daunting challenge and while the odds will be against the Blue Devils, there’s nothing that guarantees this unpredictable season won’t stay unpredictable, and that all those games will go according to form.