ANNAPOLIS, Md.—In its return to the postseason, Duke is locked in a close one with UCF through one half in the Military Bowl. Thirty minutes remain at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium with the Blue Devils clinging to a 20-7 lead.
Rolling and bowling: It’s been four years since Duke last played in a bowl game. In 2018, it took on Temple in the Independence Bowl, handily defeating the Owls 56-27, and current New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones was eventually named game MVP. In what may have been an omen, the Blue Devils began their 2022 season against Temple, trouncing it 30-0 with their first shutout since 2015. That momentum eventually carried into the Military Bowl, as Duke capitalized on key mistakes to take a 13-point halftime lead, with quarterback Riley Leonard looking a bit Jones-esque with his dual-threat prowess.
The military shuffle: Both teams had some lineup shuffling to do. Duke had no major opt-outs or transfers, but linebacker and leading tackler Shaka Heyward was unavailable following tonsil removal, and tight end Nicky Dalmolin, who head coach Mike Elko previously indicated could return from an injury sustained against Virginia Tech Nov. 12, was ultimately unavailable. Still, some key starters, like senior receiver Eli Pancol and offensive lineman Jacob Monk, returned from midseason injuries.
The Knights, meanwhile, had 10 players transfer out between the end of the regular season and Wednesday, including starters in linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, cornerback Davonte Brown and second-leading receiver Ryan O’Keefe. UCF took the absences in stride, operating as a well-oiled machine as the offense moved quickly and the defense stood strong.
Bowser’s Castle: The first half of the Military Bowl had a frenetic energy to it, mostly due to UCF’s chaotic and uptempo approach to scoring. Leading the way was UCF running back Isaiah Bowser. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee delivered on his mobile billing, sprinting 19 yards up the middle on the Knights’ second drive for a crucial first down, but Bowser was king of the castle. Twice he took the snap under center for a simple yet effective play: go fast. The first time, he secured a first down and more on a fourth-and-one, and the second time he easily ran in the tying touchdown from the one-yard line. He finished the half with 28 yards, all in the Knights’ biggest moments.
Run the dang ball: Duke’s first touchdown took nine plays and 87 yards, 70 of which came on the ground. Running back Jaylen Coleman broke through an order of Knights for a 37-yard run deep into UCF’s half, then Leonard snuck up the middle for a first down. Jaquez Moore finished the job, darting into the end zone from 15 yards out for Duke’s 29th rushing touchdown of the season, tying a single-season record set in 1954. The Blue Devils ultimately finished with 111 total rushing yards, led by Coleman with 42.
Annapolis chaos: The Blue Devils’ second scoring drive was a doozy. Wide receiver Jalon Calhoun got it off to a fast start with what looked like a picture perfect 45-yard catch and run. Then, he fumbled the ball and UCF recovered it.
But wait, there’s more. Video review revealed that Calhoun had stepped out of bounds more than 20 yards earlier. The following third down, after struggling to make anything happen, quarterback Riley Leonard overthrew the pass attempt, but the Blue Devils got another blessing after UCF was called for roughing the passer. The Knights’ red zone defense then stood strong, and Duke emerged from the chaos with a field goal.
By the numbers:
3-for-3 in the red zone: UCF entered the game with the third-ranked red zone defense in the country. Duke apparently didn’t get the memo, working through it to score on all three of its red-zone opportunities. Freshman kicker Todd Pelino supplemented those scores with a career-long 48-yard field goal as time expired.
2 dropped passes: While the Blue Devils ultimately headed into the locker room with a lead to be proud of, it could have been larger. Tight end Cole Finney dropped a potential first-down securing pass on Duke’s first drive, and in the second quarter, sophomore Jordan Moore dropped a third-down pass in the end zone, causing Duke to settle for a field goal.
1 fumble recovery: During another long run, Plumlee uncharacteristically dropped the ball when pressured by sophomore cornerback Brandon Johnson, and Duke recovered it. The Blue Devils converted the turnover into a record-breaking touchdown. Leonard snuck the ball in for the team’s 30th rushing touchdown of the season, setting the single-season record. That gave Duke a cushy 10-point lead after Calhoun’s earlier fumble got called back.
A play that mattered:
Plumlee was all but unstoppable in the first half, outrunning Duke defenders left and right and doling out six completions. The first player to make him look human was second-string linebacker Tre Freeman. With just more than 12 minutes left in the second quarter, the Blue Devils needed a stop on a third down. Plumlee, looking to pass, couldn’t find an open receiver, and Freeman chased him down and sacked him for a loss of seven yards. The Knights punted, and on the ensuing possession, Pelino eased in the Blue Devils’ second score of the game to go up 10-7.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.