ANNAPOLIS, Md.—In a letter to an editor, J.R.R Tolkien once wrote, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made of truth.” He was right in that folklore reveals much about a society’s values.
As Americans, our most oft-repeated stories impress upon us the value of perseverance. We tell the story of John Henry, a railroad worker who raced a steam-powered machine and won before dying of exhaustion in a story of strength and endurance against the odds. We remind children that Thomas Edison made 10,000 lightbulbs before one worked, and that the tortoise outran the hare because it never stopped lumbering toward the finish line.
In reality, our stories reflect what we strive to be and not what we are, and we often forget to tell children that staying the course doesn’t always pay off. Earlier in the season, Duke learned that the hard way, continually falling short in its toughest tests even as it pieced together a comeback season for the ages.
However, after earning a bid to the Military Bowl and trouncing UCF 30-13 Wednesday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the Blue Devils’ lightbulb finally lit up.
“This is not a day and age where people grind through hard times, where people stay and stick together,” head coach Mike Elko said after the game. “Everybody in our organization that ended the season showed up here today to be part of this bowl—every coach, every player. You don't see that, and this group is special.”
Throughout Elko’s first season, Duke became the team of “next play”, the team that doesn’t quit. That wasn’t easy. In their eight wins prior to the Military Bowl, the Blue Devils only beat one FBS team with a winning record—Wake Forest—while taking teams like Kansas, North Carolina and Pittsburgh down to the wire but never finishing the job. They never lost a game by more than a possession, but still, the close calls begged the question of whether they were up for the task at hand: be a competitive football program.
The Knights, then 9-4 overall and AAC runners-up, gave Duke one last shot to prove its mettle, and the Blue Devils answered the bell. They put on arguably their most dominant performance of the season, even more so than the final score would suggest, thanks to their relentlessness.
“I had no clue that when I came to Duke we were gonna be where we are. I just trusted the vision that coach Elko had and just came in and worked hard every day,” graduate safety Darius Joiner said.
Duke struck first, marching 87 yards down the field with 70 coming on the ground. The 7-0 lead that running back Jaquez Moore’s touchdown provided was short-lived, though. UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and running back Isaiah Bowser made quick work of the Blue Devils’ defense to tie the game by the end of the first frame.
Of course, when your opponent’s running back is taking snaps and rushing for seemingly automatic first downs and the quarterback is scampering 20 yards in the blink of an eye, the only solution is to come out of the gate in the second quarter and score 13 unanswered points.
Instead of playing it safe to soften the blow of one of the country’s most prolific offenses, the Blue Devils kept pushing and made the right play almost every time, scoring on each of their second-quarter drives to take a 20-7 halftime lead.
Quarterback Riley Leonard, later named Military Bowl MVP, was the engine that made it happen. While his final stat line—236 total yards and two rushing touchdowns—was not mind-boggling, his poised pocket presence and authoritative decision-making were exactly what the doctor ordered in a game that was ultimately all about control. The Blue Devils finished with a nine-minute time of possession advantage despite making a comparable number of plays to UCF (69 to 71), a testament, in part, to Leonard’s growth from a talented, but sometimes overly vigorous newbie to a more calculated and mature leader.
“We controlled the game pretty well … We executed pretty well on offense. Had a couple of three-and-outs here and there, but throughout the game, we consistently ran the ball and were able to find their holes in the defense,” Leonard said.
When the Knights’ defense came to life in the second half and Duke’s offense finally stumbled, the Blue Devil defense was right there to not only pick up the slack but to snuff out nearly any opportunity Plumlee and company had. On one drive, Duke sacked Plumlee three plays in a row en route to six total sacks, a Military Bowl record. The previous record of four was set by Wake Forest in 2016 back when Elko was its defensive coordinator.
UCF, in the end, turned the ball over twice, and freshman defensive back Chandler Rivers sealed the game by intercepting Plumlee in the end zone with seconds on the clock. As Duke’s offense bided its time in the second half, it protected the ball, never coughing up a turnover of its own.
In the second half, the Blue Devils punted on three consecutive drives. It didn’t matter, though, because the defense never quit. It got back on the field, sometimes after just a few minutes, and gave the Knights all they could handle.
“We had come off a year where we were about 130 in the country in defense, and for that group to then go out in this Military Bowl against that offense …,” Elko said. “There were times where we didn't play the way we necessarily wanted to, and the defense just kept going out and making stops.”
It was reminiscent of their season as a whole. The Blue Devils got knocked down over and over again, at home and on the road, after starting from the very bottom. None of that mattered. They stayed the course and are now Military Bowl champions and legends in the making with more years of Elko, more years of Leonard and a bright future ahead.
“Coach always talks about, you know, we need to decide who to listen to,” Leonard said. “Because those same haters will probably be supporting us going into next season … which we appreciate.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.