Extra point: Defensive pressure, effective rushing key to Duke football's Military Bowl win

Darius Joiner celebrate's Duke's Military Bowl win against UCF.
Darius Joiner celebrate's Duke's Military Bowl win against UCF.

In its first bowl appearance since 2018, Duke football defeated UCF Wednesday, 30-13. The Blue Zone is here to break down the Blue Devils’ outing in the Military Bowl with three key stats, takeaways and a look ahead:

Three key takeaways

1. All Riley Leonard, all day

The Blue Devils needed a full team effort to power themselves past UCF in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday, which was powered by the quarterback that got them in bowl contention in the first place. Sophomore signal-caller Riley Leonard showcased what made him such a special talent during the regular season, completing 19-of-28 passes for 173 yards while rushing 10 times for 63 yards and a pair of touchdowns. All in all, the Military Bowl MVP was directly involved in 14 of the Blue Devils’ 22 first downs while committing no turnovers, showing his excellence at moving the ball. Leonard’s second rushing score of the day encapsulated the excitement of the Blue Devils’ 2022 season, as he made a surging dive into the endzone to reach the final score and ice the game officially for Duke. 

2. Defensive prowess

For as strong as the Leonard-led offense was at times, the Blue Devils still punted on four drives. As such, Duke was forced to rely on its defense. Even without star linebacker Shaka Heyward, the defense surpassed expectations, holding the Knights to just 13 points on 10 drives. After UCF scored on an Isaiah Bowser run to tie the game late in the first quarter, Duke held its own, allowing no points on the Knights’ next five drives and shutting out UCF in the second and third quarters. These critical stops included a momentum-changing fumble in the second quarter forced by sophomore nickelback Brandon Johnson and recovered by graduate safety Darius Joiner. Overall, Duke’s defense allowed just 5.7 yards per attempt through the air and 3.6 yards per carry on the ground, showcasing its versatility in preventing the Knights from gaining yardage or points.

3. Veteran showings

As important as Duke’s young players have been to the unexpected resurgence of the program, the more experienced heads on the roster also played tremendously during the season, and never more so than in the most critical game of the year. During the Military Bowl, senior wideout Jalon Calhoun remained the most reliable receiver for Leonard, securing six catches for 62 yards in his first-ever bowl game and possibly his final game for the program. In addition to the fumble recovery, Joiner played a sublime game, recording seven tackles, a sack and a pass deflection. Graduate linebacker Cam Dillon did more than enough to compensate for Heyward’s absence, registering nine tackles and two sacks. Lastly, redshirt junior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter couldn’t take down UCF’s John Rhys Plumlee, but did register two pass deflections and a tackle. While some of the Blue Devils’ veterans have surely taken their last snap for the program, their presence has set the tone for the program for years to come, and their performances in the Military Bowl may inspire a generation of future Duke football players to greater success.

Three key stats

1. Six sacks

A strong pass rush is required to solidify a team’s defensive presence, as it may force the opposing quarterback into disarray or, better yet, a loss of yards on a sack. Indeed, Duke took down Plumlee six times during Wednesday’s victory. Dillon led the way with his pair of sacks, with Joiner, Tre Freeman, Ryan Smith and R.J. Oben all adding a takedown. Smith’s sack was of particular importance, as it occurred on a fourth-and-18 play with 5:25 left to close UCF’s comeback attempt for good. Overall, Plumlee was sacked on 15% of his dropbacks, showcasing the Blue Devils’ dominance up front.

2. 177 rushing yards

While Leonard’s steady passing helped guide the Blue Devils to nine wins, the offense wouldn’t have succeeded without a strong ground game. Redshirt junior running back Jaylen Coleman rushed for 53 yards on just seven attempts, while sophomore Jaquez Moore contributed 43 yards and a score on the ground. All in all, Duke finished with 177 yards and three touchdowns rushing, and Leonard and Coleman combined for 6.8 yards per carry. Simply put, the Blue Devils couldn’t win without their run game all year, and the song remained the same in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday.

3. Effective basics

For as high as the Blue Devils’ ceiling has been in 2022, their propensity to take on penalties cost them in many ways during the season, including in losses to Georgia Tech and North Carolina. However, against UCF, Duke excelled at keeping its fundamentals in order, committing just one penalty for five yards while already ahead 23-7. Additionally, Duke controlled the time of possession in the Military Bowl, taking up nearly nine more minutes than the Knights. In the end, playing mistake-free football was the cherry on top of one of the best wins in recent memory for the Blue Devil faithful.

Looking ahead

Duke caught lightning in a bottle in 2022, going 9-4 thanks to first-year head coach Mike Elko and a collective of young players joining forces as a team. Naturally, questions will arise as to whether it can recapture this success or even exceed it; several veterans that formed the nucleus of Elko’s squad likely ended their tenures at Duke Wednesday. For now, celebrating one of the proudest turnarounds in program history is more than enough. Heading into a much-needed offseason, the “Elko Era” will look to continue its run of success through recruitment, belief and, eventually, returning to the field of play next fall.


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