In many ways, this season can already be counted as a success for Duke head coach Mike Elko. He coached the Blue Devils through a remarkably quick U-turn that in the course of just one season, has brought the squad from a 3-9 record in 2021 to an 8-4 finish in the 2022 regular season.
Now, Elko and the Blue Devils will look to add the metaphorical cherry on top as they head to Annapolis, Md., to play UCF in the Military Bowl. The last time a Duke team went to a bowl game in the first year of a head coach’s tenure was in the 1994 season, when Fred Goldsmith’s crew lost to Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl. This game will be a tough postseason test for the Blue Devils as Elko looks to cap off an impressive inaugural season.
The Knights are a strong team, and most of their offense has come on the back of senior quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. The Ole Miss transfer is a solid passer, throwing for 200.3 yards per game with a 63.1% completion rate, but more importantly is an excellent runner, using his legs to escape pressure and create space for himself. In the regular season, Plumlee trampled several teams, rushing for 176 yards against then-No. 17 Tulane and 133 against South Florida. In total, he had five games with triple-digit rushing yards.
That being said, Plumlee struggled on the ground against his most recent opponent, totaling -7 yards rushing in a rematch against Tulane in which the signal caller was sacked four times. For the Blue Devils to keep Plumlee under control, their best bet will be to bring the pressure and try to prevent him from escaping the pocket, where he can outrun defenders and bring the ball downfield himself. It may prove helpful to the Blue Devils that the Knights' offensive line has struggled to protect its quarterback this year, allowing 30 sacks in total.
Duke will aim to control the flow and pace of the game to limit the Knights’ quick and dynamic attack.
“Sustained drives this week will be huge, especially with the fast, high-powered offense like UCF,” defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin said in a media availability Monday.
While the offense is the main feature for the Knights, they have also been solid on defense. They have allowed 23.2 points per game, slightly higher than Duke’s 22.8. The two areas in which the Knights have struggled on defense have been in the secondary and rushing the quarterback. The UCF secondary has recorded a measly six interceptions on the year, and the defensive front has just 22 sacks. This is good news for the Blue Devils, who may look to take the fight to the air as a result. With minimal pressure on Duke quarterback Riley Leonard and a secondary that has struggled to force turnovers, the Blue Devils can try some longer passes for big gains without some of the risk that comes with leaving Leonard in the pocket for too long.
“We've got to be physical, we’ve got to control the line of scrimmage, we’ve got to be able to run the ball well and give Riley time to make some throws,” said Franklin.
One area in which the Knights have been particularly strong is red-zone defense. UCF ranks third among FBS teams here, allowing teams to score from within the 20-yard line just 68.5% of the time. The Knights are in good company at the top of that list, too, ranking behind just Oregon State and Georgia. To score consistently from the red zone Wednesday, the Blue Devils may need to get creative.
This will not be an easy game for Elko’s Blue Devils, and it will likely prove to be one of the toughest challenges they face this year. Central Florida is a very good team, with a quick, dynamic offense and a suffocating red-zone defense. The Blue Devils will need to be quick, strong and creative on both sides of the ball to win this one and close out Elko’s first year with a win.
Elko is confident in the future of the team, too, regardless of the outcome Wednesday.
“There's going to be a big emphasis this offseason on continuing to build and continuing to strive for greater things,” Elko said, “and continuing to raise the bar of what Duke football stands for.”
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