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column: duke football's season is over. and despite occasional successes, it will be remembered as a disappointing one

head coach mike elko looks on dejectedly during duke's loss to virginia.
head coach mike elko looks on dejectedly during duke's loss to virginia.

over the years, 世界杯欧洲杯小组赛 has written a lot about moral victories. such is the nature of covering duke football. there aren’t usually a whole lot of genuine wins, but keeping it close against good teams usually sufficed for the blue devils in seasons past. now as the team has looked better, there has been debate within the department as to whether such a concept is still viable. 

is duke now "too good" for them? 

i would argue that head coach mike elko absolutely could declare his group “morally victorious” against north carolina. playing with the tar heels into double overtime? in a hostile environment with a third-string quarterback? by pretty much any standard, except the final scoreboard, that is a positive outcome. 

and yet, it will inevitably still sting. duke has come close in so many games this year. inches, yards, seconds — all difference-makers against some very good teams like north carolina, notre dame or florida state. who knows what would’ve happened if riley leonard had stayed healthy against the seminoles? if the fighting irish had not converted that fourth-and-16? if that drake maye pass is ruled an interception late against the tar heels?

the “ifs” and their siblings, “if onlys” this season have racked up at an unprecedented rate. it feels like every week there’s another excuse, another way out. a logical reason why durham’s finest lost. 

so be it. maybe this is just an unlucky group. maybe if leonard played the rest of the season, this team would be ranked right now. up until this past weekend, those are all arguments i would have been willing to entertain. the benefit of the doubt is something that must be awarded generously when one speaks of duke football. 

but, to put it frankly, a loss to virginia is unacceptable. the cavaliers are a whopping 3-8. the blue devils, even with grayson loftis in the game, are a much better squad. the defense, in a rare showing, blew it. it allowed 30 points against a squad that has averaged just 23.8 and put up more than 30 only one other time this season. the offense was almost laughable at times. despite forcing virginia to punt four times in the first half, the blue devils managed to score on just two possessions out of six. 

the game against the cavaliers was a brutal indictment of what this team really is. without leonard to lead the way, duke is not all that much better than it was a few years ago during the daniel jones administration. the offense managed to mount a comeback in the fourth quarter, but it fell short. had kicker todd pelino made an earlier field goal, the game could have at least been tied at the end of regulation. the defense is good but, as evidenced by the game saturday, can be inconsistent.

twice is a coincidence. thrice is a pattern. duke has kept it close in too many games for it to be purely incidental that the squad somehow manages to walk away with losses in nearly all of them. 

the blue devils have found a lot of different ways to lose. sometimes it’s due to bizarre prevent-defense calls. sometimes, it is a late turnover or poor play design. maybe once, we can credit it to bad luck. i suppose, to an extent, age and experience factor into it. with time, duke could find ways to become more consistent. elko is capable of bringing in higher-rated talent out of high school, which will give him a more elevated baseline at which he can begin developing younger players. the coordinators and staff will get more comfortable with calling plays at the higher levels of college. 

that being said, the blue devils currently sit having regressed to their historic mean. the last game of the season, against pittsburgh, matters only for dignity and maybe bowl placement. duke went from a potential marquee postseason matchup to a middling one. the acc championship is long gone. the season, for all intents and purposes, is over. it is time for elko and his staff to prepare themselves for an eventful offseason.

the reality is that duke ultimately did not accomplish all that much in the 2023 season. no team will ever hang a banner that reads: “we beat clemson in week 1.” beyond that one victory, it was a disappointing run. 

it’s time to move on from this season and start anew in preparation for the 2024 campaign. only then will this program have the potential to make a leap into the limelight that elko, his players and blue devil fans so desperately want to occupy.  


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