In stunning fashion, Duke dominated No. 9 Clemson 28-7 in a landmark game for coach Mike Elko’s Blue Devils. The two-touchdown underdogs emphatically beat the Tigers for the first time since 2004 and notched a victory over an AP top-10 opponent for the first time since beating No. 7 Clemson, of all teams, in 1989 under legendary coach Steve Spurrier.
Despite rolling into Durham, North Carolina, with a new-look offense under first-year coordinator Garrett Riley and quarterback Cade Klubnik, Clemson simply couldn’t get out of its own way. Red zone miscues were particularly detrimental and included a blocked 23-yard field goal and two fumbles just outside the goal line, the second of which led to a fourth-quarter Blue Devils touchdown six plays later.
Duke, on the other hand, outdueled Clemson on offense thanks to a banner performance from quarterback Riley Leonard. The junior’s highlight of the evening came on an electric 44-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter to put the Blue Devils in front 13-7, and they never looked back. Leonard finished the game with 273 yards of total offense to go along with his touchdown run.
Clemson had its chances to regain the lead, but shot itself in the foot on several occasions. The Tigers made it into Duke territory on eight of their 13 possessions and didn’t punt a single time in the second half, yet it finished with just one touchdowns off a short field.
Klubnik was limited to short passes for the majority of the game and finished with 209 yards passing at fewer than 5 yards per attempt and an interception. His only touchdown of the night came a short pass to Will Shipley out of the backfield in the first half.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Duke’s monumental upset over a top-10 opponent.
Duke’s win not a fluke
Technically, this was an upset since Duke closed as 13-point underdogs prior to kickoff, but it really wasn’t. Why? Duke flat-out whipped Clemson in every aspect. Leonard was, by far, the better quarterback and took over the game from the start. Not many quarterbacks would have showed the poise he did in the face of one of the best defensive fronts in college football. Yet, Riley never panicked, even on the rare occasions when he felt pressure.
The battle in the trenches when Duke had the ball was strength vs. strength, and the Blue Devils’ offensive line had no problem taking care of the Tigers. Riley wasn’t sacked all night and the running backs averaged 5.3 yards per rush. For the first time in a long time, the Tigers’ normally stifling defense was outclassed by a conference opponent. Perhaps more importantly, Duke’s team speed was comparable to — if not better than — the Tigers.
This wasn’t a fluke. Sure, Clemson’s pair of red zone fumbles and missed field goals didn’t help, but the Blue Devils won this game fair and square on both sides of the ball.
No faith in Klubnik?
The sophomore signal-caller entered the season with at least some Heisman Trophy hype despite one career start. The combination of Klubnik’s talents and Riley’s success at TCU was supposed to take the Tigers offense back to the glory days when Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawerence were taking snaps.
Clearly, that didn’t happen. Who is to blame? Swinney and Riley more than Klubnik. The sophomore completed 14 of 21 passes in the first half, but only for 103 yards. The only deep pass that he even attempted before halftime was an 18-yarder to Antonio Williams as the clock hit triple zeros with the Blue Devils’ defense defending a Hail Mary.
Did Klubnik do something in practice that made the staff reluctant to let him loose? That questions probably won’t be answered by anybody within the program. But the fact that Klubnik completed 13 of his 23 passes for only 124 yards in the second half — when Clemson needed him most — suggests that the staff either completely failed with its game plan or simply doesn’t trust a quarterback who won MVP honors in the 2022 ACC Championship Game.
How good Dabo Swinney really?
Is Swinney really one of the top coaches in college football? That’s a fair question at this point. It certainly doesn’t look like deserves to be mentioned in the same tier as Georgia’s Kirby Smart or Alabama’s Nick Saban. Maybe, just maybe, his success was more due to generational talents like Watson and Lawrence.
That question is even more valid after what we saw from former Tigers quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, now at Oregon State. The former blue-chip recruit and two-year starter for Clemson completed 20 of his 25 passes for 239 yards and scored five total touchdowns in his debut for the Beavers during a 42-17 win over San Jose State on Sunday.
UIagalelei shouldered a lot of the blame for Clemson’s poor offensive outputs over the past two years, but after the Tigers scored just seven points on Monday, it’s fair to ask if he was really the problem.