DURHAM — Duke suffered a heartbreaking loss and may have lost their quarterback. The No. 17 Blue Devils lost to No. 11 Notre Dame 21-14 on Saturday night, and Riley Leonard left the field on crutches as the biggest game to come to Wallace Wade Stadium since World War II had a crushing ending for Duke.
Leonard has helped from the field by two teammates, favoring his right leg. The game ended with him in the sideline medical tent. When he emerged, he refused a ride from a cart, hugged former Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, who led Notre Dame to the final-minute win, and worked his way to the locker room.
For much of the fourth quarter, Leonard appeared poised to lead Duke to an improbable comeback win in what would have been the biggest in program history, topping Duke’s win over Clemson in the season opener.
The Irish dominated the first half, as Duke’s offense was unable to get on track against the Notre Dame defense. The Blue Devils had a pair of three-and-out drives, another punt, an interception and two missed field goal attempts in a first half that saw Duke get shut out, as Notre Dame jumped out to a 10-0 lead, which the Irish extended with a field goal early in the third quarter.
Notre Dame was unable to put the Blue Devils away, however, and Duke rallied in the second half.
“We showed lot of resilience tonight,” Duke coach Mike Elko said. “We didn’t play well in the first half. We got ourselves behind the eight ball. A lot of things didn’t go our way, but we just kept battling.”
After managing just 38 rushing yards in the first half, Duke marched 75 yards in 11 plays, with Jordan Waters rushing six times for 22 yards and Jaquez Moore adding two carries for 46. Waters finished off the drive with a touchdown run.
“I thought we got pushed around in the first half,” Elko said. “In the second half, we did a better job controlling the line of scrimmage.”
Early in the fourth quarter, Duke again marched downfield, with Leonard rushing for 34 yards and throwing for another 29, including a three-yard play-action pass to a wide open Moore in the end zone to give Duke the lead.
Hartman and Notre Dame got the ball back with 2:35 left for a final drive. Duke was able to force a fourth-and-16 play, but Hartman was able to escape the pass rush and scramble for a first down, setting up a 30-yard Audric Estime rush for his second score of the game, giving the Irish the winning margin with 31 seconds left.
Leonard tried to lead a drive to force overtime, but he was hit by Notre Dame pass rusher Howard Cross III and fumbled. The Irish recovered the ball, and Leonard didn’t get up. There was no immediate update on his status following the game, putting a damper on what should have been a moment where Duke was able to shine in the attention of the near-win.
“I told the guys we didn’t do a lot of things right tonight, and we were still a fourth-and-16 away from winning the game,” Elko said. “That’s a testament to who we are and what we’re capable of. … The character of this team is unquestionable.”