Duke rolled over Northwestern on Saturday with the same ease that Riley Leonard — the ACC’s slipperiest quarterback (TM) — danced, spun and slithered through the defense on several occasions. The Blue Devils made it look easy, and that’s notable because that’s exactly what they were supposed to do.
Now 3-0, and 12-4 over the past two seasons, with a chance to improve on their No. 21 ranking in the next AP poll, Duke did what good teams do: It took care of an inferior opponent from the very beginning and gave the Wildcats little, if any, oxygen in a 38-14 win.
If you’re, say, Clemson, being in that position is an every-Saturday kind of thing. If you’re Duke, it’s a twice-in-a-decade kind of thing.
While sports gambling is not yet legal within these borders, the Las Vegas perception is as good a metric as any. The Blue Devils were a 17.5-point favorite over Northwestern, which is as much as they’ve been favored to win against a Power 5 opponent since 2014, when they were an 18-point favorite to close out the regular season against Wake Forest.
Duke was also a 17.5-point favorite against Georgia Tech in 2019, and Kansas came close in 2021 at 16.5, but it was only the fourth time since David Cutcliffe took over a team that had won two games over the previous three seasons that the Blue Devils were giving more than 16 points to a power-conference peer.
It’s an appropriate bar to set, because any Power 5 opponent has at least a modicum of ability and the potential to surprise on any given Saturday, even an opponent reeling from everything Northwestern has gone through — put itself through, really — since the hazing scandal came to light and ex-coach Pat Fitzgerald was invited to pursue other career paths.
And for Duke, it really is a role reversal. Last year, in Mike Elko’s first season, nobody expected anything from Duke, which played with the freedom of low external expectations. Anything the Blue Devils did was a step forward, reemerging from the abyss. It was all low-hanging fruit.
They were even playing with house money in the opener against Clemson, because their self-belief certainly didn’t radiate far off campus until afterward. As good as Duke was last season, there was still everything to prove under the lights that Monday night. Which the Blue Devils went out and did.
But to be heavily favored, against a troubled-but-still-talented opponent, is an entirely different situation, and not one Duke has a ton of experience in handling. There’s an art to taking care of business, epitomized by a famous for-recreational-purposes-only aphorism: Good teams win. Great teams cover. Duke covered the 17.5 with room to spare and never wavered, even after Northwestern put together one grind-it-out touchdown drive in the second quarter. A garbage-time touchdown flattered the Wildcats, but it was never in doubt.
Leonard watched the final eight minutes from the sideline with 219 passing yards and two rushing touchdowns to his credit. As he did, famously, against Clemson, he turned several would-be sacks into long runs with his ability to evade tacklers both in the pocket and in the open field. And Jordan Waters continued his touchdown streak to start the season with a pair of his own.
Duke will be favored again next week, at Connecticut, a tricky road game despite the Huskies’ slow start, and then it gets tougher: Notre Dame, N.C. State, at Florida State, at Louisville. The Blue Devils might not be in this position again until Wake Forest comes to town, and probably not as a two-touchdown-plus favorite, but they showed against Northwestern they can handle that assignment if and when it comes again.
Duke made it look easy Saturday, which is harder than it looks.
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