Before each of Duke’s home football games at Wallace Wade Stadium, a pregame hype video blares over the loudspeakers, one in which players talk about this “new era” of Duke football, and of having been “hungry all year” to compete, to prove themselves. The montage of motivational quotes ends with a voice-over from Mike Elko, in his first season as the Blue Devils head coach, saying, “We are looking to have success. Now.”
The “now” part was one of the foremost questions facing Elko and his staff when the season began three months ago. How quickly would they be able to turn around a program that’d grown stale, to put it kindly, in David Cutcliffe’s final seasons? How soon could Duke, which had won only five games over the previous two seasons, expect a winner? The answer all along, it turns out, was indeed “now.”
Duke had already secured bowl eligibility and clinched a winning record before Saturday, but the Blue Devils’ 34-31 victory against Wake Forest offered a resounding punctuation to Elko’s first regular season. Duke’s eight regular-season victories are its most since 2014, when it won nine, and it’s the Blue Devils’ most wins, overall, since 2018, which happened to be Cutcliffe’s final winning season.
Duke earned its best regular season in eight years in dramatic fashion. The Blue Devils trailed 31-27 with about three minutes left when they began a drive on their own 35-yard line. They needed just three plays to score: a roughing-the-passer penalty that accounted for 15 yards; a 30-yard pass from Riley Leonard to Jalon Calhoun and then Leonard’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Sahmir Hagans.
The touchdown pass was Leonard’s fourth of the game. The sophomore from Fairhope, Alabama, passed for a career-high 391 yards. Leonard’s performance particularly shined on a day when both offenses had their way more often than not. The hard part, for both Duke and Wake Forest, was generating stops on defense.
Wake, and prolific quarterback Sam Hartman, still had a little more than two minutes after Duke took that late four-point lead. Hartman, though, just missed connecting on multiple passes that could’ve given the Demon Deacons a chance. One of those passes, which Hartman threw under duress, sailed just over the head of tight end Blake Whiteheart, who was open down field.
Donovan Greene dropped Hartman’s next attempt, which would have given Wake a first down. And then Hartman’s next pass, far down the left sideline, ended with Darius Joiner’s interception. Hartman threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns, which gave him 107 college touchdown passes. That ties him with Tahj Boyd, the former Clemson quarterback, for most in ACC history.
Still, it wasn’t enough. Hartman and his teammates suffered a defeat for the fourth time in their past five games. Duke, meanwhile, celebrated its best regular season in years and one that, under Elko, represents a new beginning.