ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Duke brushed aside UCF with relative ease in the Military Bowl, capping an impressive turnaround this season.
Now quarterback Riley Leonard is talking about big hopes for the future.
“I'm kind of a guy that's never really satisfied," he said. “I look back at the season with nine wins, but I expect 12, 13, 14 going into the national championship. So my eyes will be set on next year, probably tomorrow or the next day.”
Coach Mike Elko was a little more willing to reflect on Duke's remarkable rise in his first season at the helm. Leonard ran for two touchdowns and threw for 173 yards, and the Blue Devils handled UCF 30-13 on Wednesday.
Duke went winless in Atlantic Coast Conference play last year, but Elko turned the team around quickly, winning ACC coach of the year honors. The Blue Devils reached nine wins in a season for the seventh time and first since 2014.
“Couldn't be more proud of this group,” Elko said. “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.”
The Blue Devils (9-4) have won four consecutive bowl games, although this was their first appearance in one since 2018. Jordan Moore ran for a touchdown in the first quarter, and then Duke took control in the second.
UCF (9-5) lost three of its final four games this season. John Rhys Plumlee managed only 28 yards passing in the first half and 182 for the game.
“We only scored 13 points. It’s all of us," Knights coach Gus Malzahn said. “We just didn’t get it done offensively.”
Moore opened the scoring with a 14-yard run, but Isaiah Bowser's 1-yard touchdown rush for the Knights tied the game at 7. Duke outscored UCF 13-0 in the second quarter.
After taking the lead on a short field goal, the Blue Devils recovered a fumble by Plumlee at their own 42. They went 58 yards in seven plays, and Leonard scored on 1-yard run.
A 48-yard field goal by Todd Pelino made it 20-7 at halftime.
Down 23-7, the Knights had a good chance to get back in the game after a profitable exchange of punts gave them the ball at the Duke 32, but UCF turned the ball over on downs.
“That was a key drive. Obviously we had the momentum,” Malzahn said. “You’ve got to score right there.”
The Knights finally scored again on 2-yard run by Bowser with 9:03 remaining, but a trick play on a 2-point conversion failed badly.
Leonard completed the scoring with a 3-yard run with 2:29 to play. He finished with a team-high 63 yards on the ground.
“This group is special and this program is special,” Elko said. “Couldn’t be more proud of this team.”
Duke: An excellent ending to a very encouraging season. The defense in particular was strong against a good quarterback. The Blue Devils had six sacks.
UCF: Plumlee was limited by hamstring problems when the Knights lost to Tulane in the AAC title game. It was hard to tell how much he was still feeling the effects Wednesday, but this was not a good performance by an offense that normally has little trouble moving the ball.
“When you struggle on offense, a lot of quarterbacks get a lot of the blame and a lot of the praise as well,” Plumlee said. “But tonight, there’s no other way to put it — just not good enough.”
There were only four penalties in the game — and only one against Duke.
“I think it shows that during the prep they were focused when they needed to be," Elko said. "They're a really mature group, and I think they had their sights set on what they wanted to accomplish all year.”
Duke: Elko and the Blue Devils clearly have a lot to build on. They didn't lose a game all season by more than eight points.
UCF: It's off to the Big 12 for the Knights, who move from the American Athletic Conference to their new league. It was somewhat fitting that they played their final game this season at the home stadium of Navy — an AAC team.
Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister
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