Down goes Dabo: Duke upsets Clemson in season opener

Duke football, Riley Leonard, Clemson
Duke students and fans storm the field at Wallace Wade Stadium after the Blue Devils upset No. 9 Clemson 28-7 on Monday in Durham. (Photo by Shawn Krest / North State Journal)

DURHAM — In the days leading up to his opener against Duke, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney complained about how long the walk was from the visiting locker room to the field at the Blue Devils’ Wallace Wade Stadium.

That was nothing compared to his walk back to those lockers after the game.

Duke got an improbable season-opening win over the No. 9-ranked Tigers, controlling the second half on the way to a 28-7 victory and ending some long streaks of futility against the team that has ruled the ACC for a generation.

It was Duke’s first win against the Tigers since 2004 and the first time the Blue Devils have beaten a top-10 opponent since beating Clemson back in 1989. Duke scored its most points against the Tigers since 2002 and held them to their lowest point total in the series since 1972. The win was Duke’s biggest over Clemson since 1936.

“We came into this game believing we could win the football game,” said Duke coach Mike Elko.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the win was that the Blue Devils didn’t have to play a perfect game to produce it. Duke, which led the nation in turnover margin last season, lost two fumbles in the first half — half of its total fumbles lost all of 2022. The Blue Devils also committed seven penalties to Clemson’s one, including a targeting call in the second half.

“It’s funny,” said Elko. “I don’t really know that we ever had control (of the game). It was really just a testament to how much we kept fighting.”

Duke’s defense shut the Tigers out in the second half and had three takeaways after halftime. The Blue Devils also blocked a field goal in the first half and pressured the kicker into a miss in the second half, holding Clemson scoreless three of the four times it reached the red zone in the game.

Clemson led at the half 7-6, but Duke took the second-half kickoff and scored on a 44-yard Riley Leonard run. The quarterback had 98 rushing yards for the game and put the Blue Devils on top to stay with his big play to find the end zone.

“Yeah, that’s what he does,” Elko said. “When we need him to make plays, he makes them. The biggest thing he has going for him is he knows how to elevate his game at the right time.”

Leonard also completed 17 of 33 passes for 175 yards, but he knew where the credit for the win belonged.

“God is good,” he said, “and so is our defense.”

Duke’s defense became the first ACC foe to hold Clemson to single digits in 118 games, dating back to November 2014 when Georgia Tech won 28-6. Only two other opponents kept Clemson under 10 points since then, and both won the national championship — Alabama in 2017 and Georgia in 2021.

The Blue Devils had six tackles for loss, two sacks and nine pass breakups. The Blue Devils recovered a Clemson fumble at their own 10 to hold off one scoring threat, then faced a first-and-goal from their own 1 and forced another fumble, with Jalen Stinson returning it 55 yards to set up a touchdown drive for the Blue Devils.

“I’m just so happy for our guys,” Elko said. “For them to go out there on this stage and perform like this is really special. We just kept fighting. We were just relentless, it’s a testimony to what culture and character can do for a program.”

As the Duke students rushed the field to celebrate the win, Clemson began its long walk back to the locker room, with plenty of questions to ponder.