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Meet Duke, which has quickly become one of the toughest teams in the ACC to handle

These guys are good, but do have a pretty large injury question mark.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Duke Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Elko is off to the best 18-game start for a head coach in Duke history, quickly upgrading Duke’s quality on both sides of the ball to an extent you might not figure would be possible there. But good coaching makes a world of difference.

So does finding an excellent quarterback, and Elko inherited Riley Leonard, who was one of the ACC’s biggest breakout talents in 2022. Leonard plays behind an offensive line loaded with veteran experience—those guys have a combined 162 college starts between them and spearhead what has been a robust rushing attack.

Duke has also won the turnover battle in 12 of 18 games under Elko; the recipe for success is pretty straightforward sometimes.

The Blue Devils enter this week at No. 28 in SP+, with the No. 36 offense and No. 19 defense. They have a win over Clemson already, and were very much game against Notre Dame two weekends back. This is an excellent team with a healthy Riley Leonard.

But Leonard suffered a high-ankle injury against the Irish, and there lies the potential opportunity for NC State. Leonard has made good progress, to hear Elko tell it, and is considered day-to-day at this point. We won’t know his status until close to kickoff.

He’s critical to Duke’s success because he’s a key to the team’s success on the ground: he led the Blue Devils in rushing last season and is doing so again in 2023, with 326 yards on 6.9 per carry (nice). You’d have to figure that his effectiveness would be limited by the ankle if he does play, and anyway that Duke would probably not want to open him up to his typical allotment of hits.

Duke has a strong running back tandem in Jordan Waters (5.8 YPC, 8 rushing scores) and Jaquez Moore (5.6, 2 TDs) but lately NC State’s defense has been up to the task of containing good backs on traditional running plays. Neither Marshall nor Louisville got much from their star RBs against the Pack. How Duke’s running game takes shape, with or without Leonard, will be a major dynamic to this matchup.

At receiver, Duke returned its top three targets from 2022, and they’re leaning heavily again on Jalon Calhoun and Jordan Moore, who combined for 122 grabs last season—they have 47 this year. The Blue Devils have only two passing touchdowns in four games against FBS opponents, and they were well below average through the air against Clemson and Notre Dame.

On the defensive side, the Blue Devils have been outstanding against the pass this year, helping them easily bury the inferior opponents on the schedule. FBS opponents are averaging 5.0 yards per attempt while completing less than 54% of their passes; regardless of the QB talent on the other side, Duke has been stifling. It will be a challenge, to say the least, for MJ Morris and State’s receivers to find consistent success here.

There it would help if State’s encouraging rushing display against Marshall carried over. Duke has been solid against the run, but not spectacular. They’ve surrendered an average of 4.0 YPC on the year, though Clemson averaged 5.3 and Notre Dame was at 5.0.

Will State be able to turn this into a low-scoring fight and deliver enough clutch plays to deliver a big road victory? Probably not doable with Leonard at 100%, but does feel plausible if he can’t go. Then again, maybe the offense will show surprising bite for a second straight week. As we’ve already seen, with MJ Morris in there, a lot of bets are off.