Zero ACC wins last year. New head coach. Projected to finish at the bottom of the conference.
For fans of Duke football, the Blue Devils competing in Wednesday’s Military Bowl against UCF might feel like a Christmas miracle. However, Duke thoroughly deserves the honor after excelling under first-year head coach Mike Elko. The Blue Devils finished 8-4 thanks to a thrilling 34-31 victory over Wake Forest in the regular-season finale. Riley Leonard tossed for career-highs of 391 yards and four touchdowns on a 70.7% completion rate.
On the other side, UCF enters the Military Bowl after a disappointing loss at the hands of Tulane in the American Athletic Conference championship game. Shortly after, they lost star receiver Ryan O’Keefe to the transfer portal and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to North Carolina. However, the 9-4 Knights are still talented, with impressive wins over ranked Cincinnati and Tulane in the regular season. Here are five things to watch out for in Duke’s first bowl matchup since 2018.
Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee has put together an amazing resume in his first season at the helm of the Knights. The senior, who transferred from Ole Miss in January, has thrown for 2,404 yards with a 63.1% completion rate. His decision-making is elite, as his QBR of 74.7 is good for 22nd in the nation.
What really makes Plumlee so talented are his legs. His quickness, partially due to his two-sport prowess as a Division I baseball player, has allowed him to rack up a team-leading 841 rushing yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
“He’s obviously a very athletic player,” Duke head coach Mike Elko said of Plumlee during his media availability Monday. “We certainly expect him to be the full version of himself.”
Duke’s run defense has struggled all year against dual-threat quarterbacks. Quarterbacks Jalon Daniels of Kansas, Drake Maye of North Carolina and Jeff Sims of Georigia Tech all led their teams to victory over the Blue Devils while rushing for 70-plus yards. If Duke allows Plumlee to run at will, UCF could end the majority of its drives with six points. The Blue Devils must work to counter Plumlee on the ground, requiring a big game from run-stopping linebacker Shaka Heyward.
Healing Blue Devils
As the season progressed, Duke picked up a few key injuries, including to offensive starters Eli Pancol and Jacob Monk. Pancol, a deep-threat wideout from Pendleton, Ind., amassed 335 yards on 21 receptions in eight games before a lower-leg injury sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season. Monk, a senior offensive lineman and team captain, was a preseason All-ACC selection before a lower-leg injury also sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season after Duke’s win over Boston College Nov. 4. However, both Blue Devils appear ready to return.
“Jacob has been going,” Elko said. “Eli [also] has been running around, and we anticipate having him.”
The addition of both players will help the Blue Devils’ offense. The return of Pancol will stretch the UCF defense vertically with his speed and deep route-running. Monk’s presence will shore up Duke’s offensive line with a talented veteran.
Wide receiver Javon Baker has excelled in his role as the secondary pass-catcher on UCF. In his first year as a starter, the junior has accumulated 747 yards, the most on the team, with an average of 13.8 yards per catch. Baker's best game of the season came against Navy, when he caught six passes for 101 yards. He excels in creating separation in single coverage, as he showed with his 28-yard touchdown reception in that game, outdueling the cornerback for the score.
Baker played alongside O’Keefe, who led the team in catches with 73 and picked up 725 total yards. However, O’Keefe entered the transfer portal and is on his way to Boston College for next season; the senior from Austin, Texas will not play against the Blue Devils. Thus, the onus falls on Baker to pick up the slack, turning the bowl game into a real prove-it test for him. Look for Plumlee to go to Baker early and often as the pair tries to exploit the oscillating Duke secondary.
When Pancol went down during a Week 8 tangle with Miami, senior receiver Jalon Calhoun was thrust into a larger role as a playmaking receiver. Even so, the senior accepted the challenge in stride and has played better as the season has progressed. Calhoun finished the regular season with 811 yards on 56 receptions, averaging 14.5 yards per catch. In his best outing, Calhoun snagged 11 receptions for 174 yards and a touchdown against Wake Forest.
Calhoun faces the 73rd-ranked passing defense in the nation in UCF. While it will be a tougher test than Wake Forest was, expect Calhoun to find windows and exploit the secondary. UCF has also struggled to rush the quarterback, registering only 22 sacks this season, which allows Calhoun more time to escape the defense. With an excellent performance Wednesday, Calhoun can help Duke register a bowl victory and maybe even notch the first 1,000-yard season of his career.
As Duke enters the Military Bowl, it has an opportunity to etch the start of Elko’s tenure into the history books as a success. A ninth win would cement the culture change that Elko vowed when he took the job in 2021, and would give the Blue Devils a lot of momentum to work with in the offseason, in which they will return a majority of their starters for 2023.
“There’s going to be a big emphasis this offseason on continuing to build and continuing to strive for greater things,” Elko said. “[We are] continuing to raise the bar of what Duke football stands for.”
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