ANNAPOLIS, Md.—In qualifying for the postseason, Duke had to defy all odds in its first year under head coach Mike Elko. On Wednesday, it looked every bit the part, earning a monumental victory before the long offseason.
Playing in their first bowl game since 2018, the Blue Devils took control late in the first half of their Military Bowl showdown with UCF and never looked back, running away with the 30-13 win to cap a turnaround season with their sweetest victory yet. Sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard was named the game's MVP after posting 236 total yards and two rushing touchdowns at the helm of a measured Duke attack while the Blue Devils’ defense excelled, holding UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee to 182 passing yards and sacking him a Military Bowl-record six times in the one-sided victory at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“Just couldn't be more proud of this group,” Elko said after the game. “From where this team was and this program was walking off the field at the end of the 2021 season to walking off the field today as the 2022 Military Bowl champions, and nobody can understand the amount of work that went into that, the amount of character that went into that.”
With halftime approaching and the Blue Devils clinging to a 10-7 lead, Duke (9-4) earned the first true break of the game. Sophomore cornerback Brandon Johnson swooped in to knock the ball away from Plumlee at the tail end of a long run, and seven plays later, Leonard muscled into the end zone from one yard out to put the Blue Devils up 17-7.
Had Duke’s lead remained 10 points for the rest of the second quarter, it might have been enough. But the Blue Devils stood their ground on the ensuing drive, forcing a three-and-out to give Leonard and the offense 1:14 to extend their lead. Freshman kicker Todd Pelino’s buzzer-beating 48-yard field goal—a career-long—capped off the well-orchestrated two-minute drill, stretching Duke’s advantage to 20-7 at the break.
“I just think playing and finishing halves is critical,” Elko said, “and that the four minutes in and around the end of the half are usually huge momentum swings. We were able to get the score to go up 17-7, which was obviously really big. And then, for the defense to go out real quick and get a three-and-out, I thought that was huge. And then we were able to execute the two-minute drive.”
Before forcing the game’s first turnover, Duke nearly coughed the ball up itself. Tied at 7-7, senior receiver Jalon Calhoun hauled one in and burst up the right sideline, eventually fumbling near UCF’s 25-yard line. Upon review, Calhoun had stepped out of bounds some 20 yards earlier, and the Blue Devils kept possession. They responded by working all the way to UCF’s 4-yard line before settling for a field goal and a 10-7 lead.
After building its halftime advantage, Duke capitalized on its opportunity to build that lead even bigger on the third quarter’s opening drive. It took 13 plays, 54 yards and an eye-popping 6:58 for the Blue Devils to walk away with a 38-yard field goal from Pelino. When the Knights (9-5) finally got the ball back down 23-7, nearly half the third quarter had gone.
Duke’s defense did the heavy lifting from there, bringing down Plumlee three plays in a row on the next drive thanks to sacks by R.J. Oben, Cam Dillon and Vincent Anthony Jr. One possession later, the Blue Devil defense held off the driving Knights on fourth-and-2 at the 24-yard line, but UCF broke through eventually: Plumlee connected with top wideout Javon Baker for 37 yards early in the fourth quarter, setting up his team’s first touchdown since the opening frame. The Knights’ two-point attempt fell short, keeping Duke up two possessions at 23-13.
That was the final opportunity for the Knights. Junior defensive end Ryan Smith ended UCF’s hopes for good with just more than five minutes to go, collecting Duke’s sixth sack on fourth down to set up Leonard for one last Blue Devil touchdown.
“I had no clue that when I came to Duke, we were gonna be where we are,” graduate safety Darius Joiner said. “I just trusted the vision that coach Elko had and just came in and worked hard every day. We're going to get better every day and set the standard even higher next year.”
UCF won the coin toss and elected to receive, but it was Duke that struck first after stopping the Knights shy of midfield on the opening drive and inheriting possession at its own 13-yard line. On their way to Jaquez Moore’s 14-yard scoring dash and a 7-0 lead, the Blue Devils piled up 70 rushing yards on seven carries, including a 37-yard burst by redshirt junior running back Jaylen Coleman.
The early lead was short-lived for the Blue Devils. The Knights equalized on the very next drive, piecing together a 14-play, 75-yard scoring drive in the closing minutes of the first quarter. Plumlee looked strong on the drive, rushing three times for 28 yards and erasing any doubts in his return from a hamstring injury suffered Dec. 3 in UCF’s American Athletic Conference championship loss to No. 14 Tulane.
“We understood how dangerous [Plumlee] was, and we talked about it all week leading in,” Elko said. “John Rhys is an extremely athletic kid. He's even faster than you think he is on film, and he looks really fast on film. But I think we did a really good job of keeping him contained. Obviously, we had a lot of guys spotting him at different times and a lot of the sacks came from that.”
Team captain Jacob Monk and wide receiver Eli Pancol both returned for the Blue Devils after prolonged injury absences. Monk started at right guard, while Pancol hauled in two catches for 12 yards. On the other hand, redshirt senior captain Shaka Heyward missed the game following a tonsillectomy.
“This is not a day and age where people grind through hard times, where people stay and stick together,” Elko said. “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, this program is special and what this university's football team is going to be about in the future is really special.”
Duke’s win marks its first bowl victory since 2018, when it topped Temple 56-27 in the Independence Bowl, and the first for a Blue Devil head coach in his first season. Fred Goldsmith, who led Duke to a Hall of Fame Bowl appearance after the 1994 season, is the only other first-year head coach to reach the postseason in Durham.
Leonard’s second-quarter rushing score was Duke’s 30th of the season, shattering a single-season program record set in 1954. His fourth-quarter touchdown was his 13th with his legs in his first season as a starter, giving him the second-most in a single season by a Blue Devil quarterback.
Wednesday also marked the first Military Bowl since 2019, when North Carolina defeated Temple 55-13.
Duke now enters the offseason and the new year after compiling a 9-4 record in 2022.
“I'm kind of a guy that's never really satisfied,” Leonard said. “So I look back at the season with nine wins but you know, I expect 12, 13, 14 going into the national championship, so my eyes will be set on next year, probably tomorrow.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.