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Third and goal: Duke football has the tools it needs to defeat UCF in Military Bowl

Duke football looks to build on its success Wednesday in its Military Bowl matchup against UCF.
Duke football looks to build on its success Wednesday in its Military Bowl matchup against UCF.

Duke football looks to end its strong season with a victory in the Military Bowl against UCF. The Blue Zone is here with three keys to a Blue Devil victory: 

Stick to what works 

Throughout the season, the Blue Devils' calling card has been its defense. From forcing eight turnovers against Miami to holding opponents to just under 23 points per game on the season, Duke’s opportunistic defense helped lead the Blue Devils to an 8-4 record thus far. The squad has fared much better on the defensive end stopping the run than the pass. The front line will play an important role in stopping the UCF rushing attack, as the Knights bring three players who average more than 50 yards per game on the ground. On the offensive end, Duke will rely on another strong outing from quarterback Riley Leonard. The sophomore has proved time and again that he's able to battle it out in close games, including marching the Blue Devils down the field against Pittsburgh to set up a chance to tie the game at the last second, and while he was not able to convert in that game, Leonard proved that he can get his team in position to win. 

Control the first half 

UCF played now-No. 14 Tulane twice this season, beat the Green Wave Nov. 12 before losing to them in the AAC championship game. In their victory, the Knights jumped out to a 10-0 lead and held that margin through much of the first half, eventually sustaining their lead throughout the entire game. Their strength on the ground makes them a difficult team to come back against, so in order to find success, Duke will need to strike early and often. Getting points on its first drive will be critical, not only to building confidence, but in setting the tone of the game. With plenty of time to prepare for the matchup, head coach Mike Elko will no doubt have a set of plays to run on this opening series. Therefore, Leonard and the Duke offense should be able to find success. If the Blue Devils can establish a lead going into halftime, the pressure will be on UCF to come back, and Duke can control the tempo. 

Play in the moment 

Looking past stats and game plans, Wednesday will mark the first time Duke plays in a bowl game since 2018. More than that, Elko, in just one season, has turned a three-win team that lost every conference matchup into a squad that has a chance to win its ninth game. UCF is an established football program, even going undefeated in 2017, and winning a bowl game against the Knights will unequivocally bring Duke into a new era. While this may create pressure on the team to succeed, it has proved capable of playing quality football all season—even its four losses only came by a combined 16 points. The Blue Devils do not need to do anything different to win this football game. While UCF is a formidable foe, it is not significantly better than teams Duke has already faced like North Carolina or Pittsburgh. If it is able to seize this moment and play to its potential, Blue Devil fans won't have to wait another four years for the next bowl game. 

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