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Beats' picks: Will Duke football win Military Bowl matchup against UCF?

Duke's Sahmir Hagans (85) and Jack Burns (68) celebrate after a fourth-quarter score against North Carolina Oct. 15.
Duke's Sahmir Hagans (85) and Jack Burns (68) celebrate after a fourth-quarter score against North Carolina Oct. 15.

Before every game this season, our football beat writers predict whether the Blue Devils will pick up a win in their weekly matchup and keep track of their records throughout the year. On Wednesday, Duke has one last matchup: a Military Bowl showdown against UCF in Annapolis, Md., at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. 

Jonathan Levitan: Duke 38-33

Let me begin by saying that this is a wonderful matchup. Bowl fatigue is everywhere all at once these days, but here we are, blessed by a bowl game featuring two teams with every good reason to fight for one last win.

That being said, how can you pick against Duke at this point? Outside of a 28-26 loss at Pittsburgh in November, the Blue Devils have done everything right since their Oct. 15 loss at home to North Carolina. The Knights have some serious firepower and are the most well-rounded opponent yet for this Duke team, but head coach Mike Elko and company have exceeded expectations at every turn. With the Blue Devils healthy after a month of rest and coming off of their best offensive performance, they should have just enough scoring in the tank to overcome UCF in what promises to be a thrilling Military Bowl.

Micah Hurewitz: UCF 30-24

The Blue Devils have found themselves with a sneaky good matchup against the Knights of UCF in this one. The Knights fell short in the American Athletic Conference championship game—a conference that far too often is disrespected. On the other hand, Duke was a game shy of playing in its conference championship as an up-and-comer. 

When you pit an established top-conference powerhouse against a rebuilding team with a new head coach, I’m picking the former. It took Duke four tries before winning its first bowl game with its ever-improving roster from 2012 to 2015, and here I think Elko comes up just short in his first bid as a head coach. The teams both have strong passers in Riley Leonard and John Rhys Plumlee—who also love running the ball—but Leonard’s offense and Duke’s often porous defense are not quite there yet.

Sasha Richie: Duke 38-35

After a fairytale comeback season, it’s time for a storybook ending. Just like the knight gets the princess, Duke will win its first bowl game in four years. UCF is undoubtedly one of the best Group of Five programs, and its offense is correspondingly high-powered. However, high-powered offenses are nothing the Blue Devils haven’t seen before; Duke came within a possession of both North Carolina and Kansas and defeated Wake Forest. Not to mention, the Knights’ receiving corps has taken a serious hit and their starting quarterback is coming off an injury. 

Given that the Blue Devils’ biggest weakness is their pass defense, this only improves their odds. UCF has also had bad turnover luck, whereas Duke has the second-best turnover margin in the nation. In short, this game plays into Duke’s strengths. If the Blue Devils can simply do what they have done well all season—move the chains, defend the run and protect the ball—they can ride into the sunset with their happily ever after, even if the Knights give them a run for their money. 

Andrew Long: Duke 31-28

I still think Duke lacks the raw talent of some of its ACC rivals and is a few years away from being considered in the same breath as the goliaths of the conference, but that should in no way diminish the miraculous effort that Elko and his team have put together in 2022. In case it hasn’t been mentioned enough, the Blue Devils went 3-9 last year and did not even have the opportunity to play in a bowl game, let alone win one. With that opportunity, I see Duke taking it.

A month off has allowed some crucial pieces like Eli Pancol and Jacob Monk to ease their ways back into the rotation after injury layoffs, meaning the Blue Devils are nearly at full strength. Leonard has proven that in big games, he puts up big numbers and even bigger plays (see North Carolina), the running back room is stacked and capable and the defense has improved mightily. UCF will run this one close and make it a Military Bowl to remember, but my heart tells me that 12 months down the road, fans will be speaking fondly of Duke’s monumental postseason victory of yesteryear. 

Rachael Kaplan: Duke 34-30

If you had told me one year ago that Duke, after its abysmal 2021 season and winless ACC slate, would go 8-4 this year, I would have laughed. This team, and Elko, have proven the doubters wrong every step of the way. I’d be foolish to pick against them now. 

It will by no means be easy. Plumlee has had a stellar season, and the Blue Devil secondary has been picked apart on multiple occasions this season. Against Tulane, the quarterback rushed for 176 yards and two scores. He has accounted for 25 touchdowns with 14 through the air and 11 on the ground. Stopping him, or even slowing him down, is a tall task for Duke’s defense, but one it can handle. On the other side of the ball, all eyes will be on Leonard. In his first season as the team’s starter, he has led his offense with poise. Though this will be his biggest stage yet, Leonard has yet to falter. 

Franck Djidjeu: Duke 35-28

For their first bowl game since 2018, the Blue Devils find themselves matched up against their AAC counterparts in UCF. The Knights average 34.4 points to Duke’s 33.1, and both teams give up approximately 23 points per game. Furthermore, both teams run the ball well. UCF averages 5.3 yards per carry with 33 rushing touchdowns, while Duke averages 5.0 yards per carry with 28 touchdowns on the ground.

However, where Duke separates itself is defensively. In a game of dominant rushing attacks, the Blue Devils are much better at stopping the run. They give up 120 rushing yards per game and are one of 10 defenses in the country that have allowed eight or fewer rushing touchdowns. The Knights, on the other hand, have allowed 21. Plumlee could be limited due to his recent hamstring injury, so UCF’s ability to scramble will not be as effective as Duke’s with a fully healthy Leonard. The Knights are a tough team, but I don’t see them out-toughing a Duke team that has embraced an identity that has not often let them down.

Season records:

Levitan: 7-5

Hurewitz: 8-4

Richie: 7-5

Long: 7-5

Kaplan: 8-4

Djidjeu: 7-5

Sasha Richie profile
Sasha Richie | Sports Managing Editor

Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

Micah Hurewitz

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

Jonathan Levitan

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

Rachael Kaplan profile
Rachael Kaplan | Sports Managing Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Sports Editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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