DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — First Mike Elko rebuilt Duke’s competitive edge.
Then its confidence.
And now, a game into his second season, he’s led the Blue Devils to their biggest win in years: a shocking upset of ninth-ranked and preseason Atlantic Coast Conference favorite Clemson.
Riley Leonard broke loose from a tackler and sprinted to the open for a 44-yard touchdown that highlighted Duke’s tough and physical performance to beat the Tigers 28-7 in Monday night’s season opener for both teams.
Jaquez Moore added a 9-yard scoring run by beating multiple defenders to the near pylon on the right side in the fourth quarter for the Blue Devils (1-0, 1-0 ACC). That gave them an unexpected two-touchdown lead in a game they largely controlled in spite of numerous miscues, notably a muffed punt that led to Clemson’s lone score and a fumble on a drive nearing the red zone before halftime.
“It’s important on the outside, because I think it makes people believe a little bit more what we’ve been saying since the day I got here,” Duke’s second-year coach said. “What we’ve been saying internally is this is what Duke football is capable of. We’ve never ever wavered from that at all.”
By the end, Duke students known for their rowdy “Cameron Crazies” antics at men’s basketball games were part of a surge of fans sprinting to midfield to celebrate as the final seconds ticked away. Elko broke into a big smile and jogged toward midfield with both arms raised, pointing skyward.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words right now,” Leonard said.
On this night, Duke thrice held up after Clemson had pushed inside the 10-yard line — even to the 1 on two of those possessions — to hold the Tigers scoreless. The Blue Devils blocked two field goals and twice recovered fumbles in those critical near-the-goal-line moments, and didn’t surrender massive chunks of big-play yardage in Clemson’s first game with new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley.
“We work out in the summer and train, too,” Duke defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. “We condition, too.”
Meanwhile, the preseason ACC favorite often looked very ordinary as the Tigers (0-1, 0-1) fell to Duke for the first time since 2004.
“We’re not entitled to win,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve got to go earn it. And we had plenty of opportunity to get control of that game on multiple occasions and we just didn’t. And that’s how you get beat.”
By the final minutes, there was the unusual sight of Clemson trying to keep the chains moving and build toward any type of miracle comeback. There was also the sight of the opponent celebrating with the defiant swagger Clemson has shown in so many of these moments on the way to seven of the past eight ACC titles.
When Duke’s Dorian Mausi had an interception with about 5 minutes left, multiple Duke defenders waved goodbye toward the Clemson sideline as orange-clad fans who packed into Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium streamed for the exits.
That gave Duke’s students and fans a monopoly to celebrate in an atmosphere growing ever more festive as the clock wound toward zero.
Jordan Waters added a punctuating moment by breaking loose for a 36-yard scoring run with 3:15 left to turn the game into a romp. And it ended Duke’s 28-game losing streak to top-10 opponents, the last win coming — fittingly — against then-No. 7 Clemson in 1989.
Cade Klubnik threw for a short touchdown to Will Shipley in the second quarter for Clemson’s only score on a day that repeatedly left Swinney shaking his head (after a second blocked kick) or wiping his forehead (after a fourth-quarter fumble at the goal line) in frustration on the sideline.
Clemson: Riley’s arrival after helping TCU make last year’s national-championship game was supposed to provide a spark for the Klubnik-led offense. The Tigers finished with 422 total yards with balance of cracking 200 yards both on the ground and through they air, but they repeatedly fell short in critical moments while stumbling into massive mistakes.
Duke: Elko took over a program that had seen its winning edge fizzle in the final years of David Cutcliffe’s long and successful tenure. He found immediate success with nine wins, including a bowl victory, in Year 1 after Duke had won 10 games in the three previous seasons. And now, this.
The Tigers have likely sent themselves careening down, or even out of, Tuesday’s new poll with this showing. But the Blue Devils could be in line to crack the rankings for the first time since 2018.
No top-10 team has lost an opener to an unranked team by 11-plus points since at least 2000. Clemson had hit double-figures in scoring in 72 straight ACC games before Monday.
And the Tigers fell to 58-1 when having at least 200 yards rushing and passing under Swinney.
Clemson: The Tigers return home to host Charleston Southern from the Big South Conference on Saturday.
Duke: The Blue Devils host a nonconference game against Lafayette from the Patriot League on Saturday.