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ChronSports' Top 10 of 2022 — No. 2: Duke football rights the ship, wins Military Bowl in successful first season under Elko

Duke poses for a team photo after winning the Military Bowl 30-13.
Duke poses for a team photo after winning the Military Bowl 30-13.

As 2022 comes to a close, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest stories of the year in Duke athletics. Each day, we will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year for the Blue Devils. 

Coming in at No. 2: Under new head coach Mike Elko, Duke football responded to last year’s underwhelming 3-9 season with a resounding 9-4 record and a bowl game victory. For the full list, click here.

On Feb. 15, inside of a raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium filled with students watching Wendell Moore Jr., Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams light it up for Duke men’s basketball, new Duke football head coach Mike Elko fired up the Cameron Crazie crowd. “The time is now for Duke football,” he said.

What the capacity crowd didn’t realize was that Elko was for real. 

In 2022, Duke exceeded all expectations, finishing the year with a 9-4 record, five wins in the ACC and a Military Bowl victory over a talented UCF squad. The former Texas A&M defensive coordinator shifted the culture in Durham, both on and off the field, with an inspired group of Blue Devils looking to avenge last year’s disappointments. 

To start the year, the Blue Devils fought their way to a 3-0 record, with home wins against Temple and North Carolina A&T and an impressive road victory at Big Ten foe Northwestern sandwiched in between. Following a setback at then-undefeated Kansas, Duke responded with its first ACC victory since the 2020 season, topping Virginia and moving to 4-1. 

Sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard was making waves throughout the college football world, and Duke’s defense allowed just 19 points per game through the five-game stretch. 

However, the good times couldn’t last forever. 

In October, Elko faced the first real test of his head coaching career. A 23-20 overtime loss at 2-3 Georgia Tech and heartbreak in a thrilling 38-35 loss to North Carolina dropped Duke to 4-3 on the year. However, the Blue Devils stood unfazed. 

Responding to the back-to-back defeats with a three-game winning streak of its own, Duke clinched bowl eligibility after taking down Boston College 38-31 in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Prior to that one, the Blue Devils flew down to Coral Gables, Fla., and took care of nine-point favorite Miami 45-21.

Perhaps one of the more interesting storylines throughout the year was the development of sophomore Jordan Moore from quarterback to wide receiver. After losing the fall camp battle to Leonard, Elko optioned Moore to a new role as a receiver. 

After surging to a 7-3 record, Moore racked up 199 receiving yards and one touchdown on 14 receptions on the road as the Blue Devils fell to Pittsburgh 28-26 after a failed two-point conversion attempt in the final moments.  

While Moore’s transition to receiver cannot be directly credited to Elko, the creativity to add an athletic talent to the receiving group was a breath of fresh air. After all, Moore could have sat unused as a backup quarterback, watching Leonard and the offense every Saturday. 

After disappointment in Pittsburgh, Duke wrapped up the regular season by winning 34-31 against Wake Forest, a team with high expectations going into 2022. Just more than a week later, the Blue Devils were selected to play UCF in the Military Bowl to cap off their season.

After being picked to finish last in the ACC Coastal Division in the preseason, Duke qualified for its first bowl game since 2018. Much will be made of the great turnaround during Elko’s inaugural season. Ultimately, a nine-win season is no pushover: In their last three seasons, the Blue Devils won 10 games total. However, Duke’s four losses came by a combined 16 points, leaving it one possession away on various occasions from a division championship and ACC championship game appearance.

So much credit has been given to Elko, but let’s not forget about the players, who had the mental strength to shrug off a three-win season and win a bowl game. Leonard tops that list, as the Fairhope, Ala., native posted 13 rushing and 20 passing touchdowns, placing himself in the upper echelon of ACC quarterbacks returning to school next fall.  

When push comes to shove, both Elko and Leonard will have a challenge to keep this momentum rolling, and exceed loftier expectations next year. As Leonard said after Wednesday’s Military Bowl win, bigger things—like a national championship—are on his mind as preparations for next year begin.

READ MORE on Duke football's turnaround season:

MILITARY MAYHEM: Leonard leads the way as Duke football runs away from UCF to win Military Bowl

'You don't see that': Duke football stayed the course, becoming Military Bowl champions in the end

'A good start': On night of firsts, Duke football picks up special win

'It's about us': In 'monumental' win at Boston College, Duke football's unlikely turnaround reaches new milestone

'The new wave of football': How Duke football’s game-day culture came roaring back to life in Elko’s first season

Duke football head coach Mike Elko named ACC Coach of the Year

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