X-Factor: Another big game from Leonard can help Duke football to Military Bowl triumph

Riley Leonard winds up for the throw against Pittsburgh.
Riley Leonard winds up for the throw against Pittsburgh.

Duke plays in its first bowl game since 2018 as it takes on UCF in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday. Before the Blue Devils and Knights square off, the Blue Zone is here with a potential difference-maker for both teams:

Duke: Riley Leonard, QB

Duke ended its miraculous regular season with a big home victory against Wake Forest Nov. 26. Quarterback Riley Leonard played the best game of his young career in the 34–31 win, setting personal bests with 391 yards in the air and four passing touchdowns. The signal-caller was tremendous throughout the back-and-forth affair in Wallace Wade Stadium and he capped it off with a 20-yard strike to Sahmir Hagans in the right corner of the endzone to put the Blue Devils on top for good. Now, over a month later, Duke is set to participate in its first bowl game since 2018—and much of the spotlight will shine on Leonard.

While bowl season often receives criticism for lacking importance and meaning, the sentiment in the Blue Devils’ camp could not be further from these assessments. Wednesday’s matchup against UCF represents an opportunity to end the unlikely 2022 campaign with an exclamation point as well as a chance to prepare for and build toward next year. Leonard, an All-ACC Honorable Mention, will be at the forefront of this mission.

The sophomore is set to return next season alongside most of his offensive teammates, and the Military Bowl is an exciting stage for Leonard to finish his strong season on a good note and remind Duke fans why they should be excited for the future of Blue Devil football. The Knights’ defense has also shown some cracks down the stretch of the season, allowing at least 28 points in four of their last five contests. If Leonard is able to maintain the superb play he showed throughout the regular season and dissect the UCF defense, he could lead Duke to a massive bowl win to end head coach Mike Elko’s first season in Durham.

UCF: Jason Johnson, LB

While Duke’s season and subsequent invitation to the Military Bowl can be seen as a resounding success, the Knights are coming off a slightly disappointing campaign and a loss in the AAC Championship. As is the case with many squads around this time of year, this leaves UCF with an atmosphere of uncertainty and a lack of clarity—particularly surrounding the status of dual-threat quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. Consequently, the Knights will likely focus on the defensive side of the ball in their attempt to overcome the Blue Devils, and at the center of this unit resides 6-foot-2 linebacker Jason Johnson.

The former FCS All-American transferred from Eastern Illinois to UCF for his senior year, and his transition to the highest level of college football has been seamless. Johnson is ranked third in the conference and leads the Knights with 119 total tackles—including an astonishing 64 solo tackles—and has also forced two fumbles this season. As Duke will likely search to establish its successful ground attack while also mixing in some attempts through the air, Johnson will be crucial in keeping the Blue Devils off the board and giving UCF a strong shot to win its second-consecutive bowl game.


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