Duke football finally tasted defeat. What we learned from Blue Devils’ loss at Kansas

Duke experienced myriad firsts during its trip to the Great Plains on Saturday, a trip that resulted in a 35-27 loss to Kansas.

For the first time under Mike Elko’s leadership, the Blue Devils experienced trailing in a game, losing a game and seeing opposing fans storm the field after beating Duke.

That last one had little to do with Elko and the Blue Devils, reflecting more on Kansas (4-0) and its first season with more than three wins since 2009.

The Jayhawks, led by fabulous quarterback Jalon Daniels, were a far better opponent than Duke (3-1) faced while opening the season with wins over Temple, Northwestern and N.C. A&T.

The schedule Elko inherited was set up in stages.

The early games figured to be the least challenging. Kansas was projected to be in that group, while Northwestern is usually a little better, but just go with the premise.

The schedule was supposed to allow Duke to ease into the season before hitting ACC play, where the Blue Devils have won just one of 18 games over the past two seasons.

Duke dominated Temple and N.C. A&T, and looked solid against struggling Northwestern on the road.

Kansas challenged Duke in ways those three teams didn’t, and in doing so slowed, but not necessarily erased, the momentum Elko injected into the Blue Devils this month.

Duke is no longer among the nation’s unbeaten teams — a development that was inevitable, of course.

But what do we know now about Duke that we didn’t before Saturday’s game with Kansas? Plenty.

Here are three of those things:

Oh boy, Duke defense

The type of play seen far too often last season when Duke went 3-9 and allowed 39.7 points per game reappeared against Kansas.

Missed assignments and missed tackles abounded as the Jayhawks amassed 528 yards of offense.

Daniels threw four touchdown passes and added a touchdown run. His receivers were wide open — like, with no Blue Devils defender within 10 yards — on a number of plays.

The Jayhawks converted 6 of 10 third downs which helped them put together touchdown drives covering 57, 75 (twice), 76 and 62 yards. That’s despite Kansas’ average yards to gain on third down plays being 7 yards.

“We’ve got to figure out how to coach it better and get them to understand a little bit better what we’re trying to get accomplished,” Elko said. “Certainly, we didn’t challenge enough of the third downs. We didn’t force them to make enough plays to convert.”

Duke safety Darius Joiner said the coverage mistakes came down to on-field communication between the players.

“Ultimately, it came down to communication,” Joiner said. “Overall the whole day, we knew what we were doing. We knew how to get into it. We weren’t communicating amongst each other. Everybody who’s keeping secrets today and we can’t keep secrets. If we want to win, you’ve got to relay that message to everybody. And we’ll do that going forward.”

Primarily a man-to-man coverage team in years past, Duke is using some zone defense this season. It sounds like some more prep work is needed for linebackers and defensive backs to get synced up.

Tackling is not solved quite yet

Duke was among the nation’s worst tackling teams last season. Pro Football Focus graded the Blue Devils at 49 for the season, which was 120th among 130 Division I FBS teams.

Over the season’s first three games, the Blue Devils were better this season at 58.1, good for No. 85 nationally.

Some regression appeared Saturday at Kansas as the Jayhawks had nine passing plays that gained 15 yards or more and eight running plays that gained 10 yards or more.

The worst example was a 73-yard pass play for a touchdown from Daniels to running back Daniel Hishaw, when at least four Duke players (conservatively) missed tackles on Hishaw after he caught the short pass.

Kansas, for the most part, had better athletes than Duke faced earlier this season. That aspect of things will continue to get tougher as the Blue Devils face ACC teams the rest of the season.

Duke wide receiver Eli Pancol (6) catches a pass under pressure from Kansas cornerback Cobee Bryant (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Lawrence, Kan.
Duke wide receiver Eli Pancol (6) catches a pass under pressure from Kansas cornerback Cobee Bryant (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Lawrence, Kan.

Resilience on display

Elko isn’t at Duke for moral victories. He wanted to win on Saturday.

But the way the Blue Devils bounced back again and again when the Jayhawks appeared ready to pull away spoke plenty about the work Elko has done.

Three times in the first half, Duke got the ball after a Kansas touchdown and drove to score points of its own. Only one time was that a touchdown, which is why the Jayhawks won. But the fact the Blue Devils responded at all is far better than last season.

Duke entered the fourth quarter trailing 28-13. Quarterback Riley Leonard led a pair of touchdown drives for the Blue Devils.

Kansas showed mettle of its own driving for a touchdown after Duke pulled within eight points with 8:54 to play.

But then Duke struck back again as Leonard fired a 27-yard touchdown pass to Jalon Calhoun.

When Duke got the ball back down 35-27, Leonard hooked up with Calhoun for a 40-yard gain to get the drive going.

The drive stalled at the Kansas 31, but the Blue Devils showed fight that could lead to better things the rest of the season.

“Like I told them in the locker room,” Elko said, “the fighting spirit, the competitiveness, I’m proud of all of that stuff. I thought we did a really good job of battling when things didn’t go particularly well for us today. But for us to win these games, which is ultimately what we want to do, we just have to execute better. We’re going to want to make it about a lot more than that. But that’s the reality.”