The Duke Blue Devils suffered a gut-wrenching 48-34 loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. on Thursday.
Following an 18-year drought, Duke (6-7) went into its ninth bowl game with the intent of making a statement and winning its first postseason game since 1961.
Regardless of the fact that they were a team comprised of players with no prior bowl game experience going up against Cincinnati (10-3), a team that had appeared in postseason games in six of the last seven years, many considered it a tall task to ask of the Blue Devils.
As the final seconds counted down to end the game, it turned out that it wasn’t as much Cincinnati beating Duke, as it was the Blue Devils not finishing what they started.
“There is a big difference between winning a bowl game and losing one – there is no comparison,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said in a somber tone afterwards.
“This feeling in our guts is obviously not very good right now.”
For anyone following Duke this season, the first series of plays that senior quarterback Sean Renfree orchestrated to march the Blue Devils down the field 79 yards to score the game’s first touchdown on Brandon Connette’s rush into the end zone, in just over three minutes, was as good as any set of downs the team had executed all year.
The Blue Devils defense then matched the offense’s start with a strong stance against Cincinnati quarterback Brandon Kay and the Bearcats, forcing them to punt the ball away after three downs from their own 34-yard line.
Duke then ran another series of plays and gained another opportunity to score which it converted with a Ross Martin field goal to take a quick 9-0 lead on the Bearcats.
Maintaining its momentum, the Blue Devils defense once again forced Cincinnati to punt the ball away after three straight incomplete pass attempts and capped it off with cornerback Tony Foster blocking kicker Pat O’Donnell’s punt deep in the Cincinnati end and watching the ball roll into the end zone before jumping on it for another touchdown.
Even in taking a commanding 16-0 lead, the Blue Devils couldn’t hold the Bearcats off from scoring a field goal to end the first quarter.
As the Blue Devils continued a drive it started just after Cincinnati had scored, it looked as though they would build upon their lead until Jela Duncan fumbled the ball after being hit by Greg Blair on the Bearcats’ one-yard line.
That turnover provided the momentum that Cincinnati needed to get its offense moving.
Though not scoring immediately on the ensuing series of downs and punting the ball back in Duke’s direction, a subsequent fourth down stand against the Blue Devils, who couldn’t gain a yard to convert a first down at the Cincinnati 45-yard line, provided the opening the Bearcats needed to get back into the game.
Lapses and miscues
Kay worked the ball from that point on with a combination of long and short yardage passing plays that culminated with a 25-yard strike to receiver Anthony McClung to narrow the Duke lead to 16-10 after Tony Miliano converted the point-after attempt.
As quickly as Duke had taken the lead, Cincinnati was looking to take it.
The Duke offense got stuck in its own end on the next series of downs, but punter Will Monday’s bowl-record punt of 79 yards landed and dribbled to the Cincinnati two-yard line, and looked to put the Blue Devils in a good position to defend their lead at the time.
However, the Bearcats caught the Blue Devils defense napping at the right time as they put together a six-play drive that was completed with a 41-yard catch and run by David Abernathy to put Cincinnati ahead, 17-16, with 35 seconds remaining in the half.
On the ensuing series, Renfree worked the clock effectively, gaining as much yardage as possible to put Duke in a position for Martin to kick a field goal and regain the lead before the half ended.
While the Duke kicker’s foot contacted the ball to convert a 53-yard attempt, and as the ball barely carried the distance through the uprights, the play was blown dead as Cincinnati was called for having too many men on the field while making a late substitution.
Cutcliffe was visibly disturbed by the violation which seemed to have been taken intentionally and subsequently resulted in the kick being retaken as a result of it.
Even with the ball spotted five yards closer, Martin missed the left upright with a solid kick and the Bearcats maintained the one-point lead as both teams headed into their locker rooms.
Both teams came out for the second half focused on continuing to add points on the board in both end zones.
As Cincinnati extended its lead to 20-16 with just over ten minutes remaining in the third quarter, Renfree tried to keep Duke’s offense moving but experienced some trouble and was picked off and gave the Bearcats another opportunity to score.
It didn’t take long for that to happen as Cincinnati’s leading rusher, George Winn, extended the lead to eleven points, 27-16, as he scored on a 46-yard rushing play, capping off a simple and effective two-play series.
Down but not out, Renfree took control of the offense and engineered an 11-play, 86-yard drive that resulted in a Conner Vernon touchdown reception and an Isaac Blakeney two-point conversion that brought Duke to within three points, trailing 27-24.
A game of inches
Having regained the momentum it had lost earlier in the game, the Blue Devils looked poised to keep pushing the Bearcats until the very end, and they did just that entering the final quarter.
With the ball at the Cincinnati 37-yard line, Renfree got the offense in position to score and was relieved by Connette, who came in to complete a short pass to David Reeves, to regain the lead for Duke, 31-27, with 12:37 remaining.
On cue, Kay needed only four plays and 85 seconds for the Bearcats to retake the lead after he connected on a 25-yard pass to Chris Moore.
As the intensity of play increased on the field, the tension and excitement in the stadium also heightened as the crowd of 48, 128 watched on as the Blue Devils evened the score, 34-34, on Martin’s 52-yard field goal soon afterward.
The Blue Devils had finally regained the momentum and composure they had started the game with, and denied Cincinnati any possibility of extending the lead on its next series of downs.
With just over five minutes remaining, Duke took possession of the ball and ate up almost four minutes of game time while meticulously moving down the field with Josh Snead carrying much of the load.
It looked as though the Blue Devils would pin the Bearcats down as they entered the red zone ready to score from the five-yard line with second down and goal to go.
The ball was snapped and Snead took the handoff for one more rush towards the end zone, but a tackle by Cincinnati’s Brandon Mills popped the ball loose and ended the series to the delight of the Bearcats and their fans.
With 1:20 remaining and deep in their end of the field, Cincinnati still had work to do and with Duke having reclaimed its composure, it seemed as though only a well-executed set of plays would have to be made to win the game – and they were.
After gaining nine yards on his own, Kay handed the ball off to Winn to gain an important first down away from his end zone.
The Bearcats quarterback then found tight end Travis Kelce wide open in the midfield, behind the Duke secondary, and the six-foot six-inch, 260-pounder rumbled the rest of the way, finishing the 83-yard play untouched and scoring the eventual game-winning touchdown.
Insult to injury
With 39 seconds remaining on the clock and a with a chance to tie the game, Renfree worked to keep the Blue Devils in contention.
After gaining a first down that brought Duke to the Cincinnati 40-yard line, Renfree’s next pass attempt was rushed and as he released the ball, was tackled hard.
The ball was intercepted by the Bearcats’ Nick Temple who ran the ball the distance of the field to score another touchdown for Cincinnati while Renfree lay writhing in pain at the fifty-yard line as a result of the tackle.
Though it took some time for Duke training staff members to escort him off the field, the final blow had come to the graduating quarterback and his team.
Though being within reach from the beginning of the game, a bowl game win, the Belk Bowl trophy, and a winning season had eluded the Blue Devils, all in less than a minute.
“They made too many explosive plays, too many big plays and we didn’t finish our opportunities,” Cutcliffe concluded.
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