Head coach David Cutcliffe said that Duke was a “bowl-worthy team and not just a bowl-eligible team,” and had played well enough to win. The Blue Devils were also a team that played just bad enough to lose and that is what happened in the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium on Charlotte Thursday night.
Duke came into the game just 6-6 and their goal was to finish the season with a winning record, however, a pair of costly fumbles and some lapses by the defense let Cincinnati effectively steal a 48-34 win before a chilled crowd of 48,128.
“You learn through years of doing this and I think that it’s evident in our locker room that there is a big difference between winning a bowl game and losing one,” Cutcliffe said after the game. “There’s no comparison. This feeling in our guts is not very good right now. But, we’re going to move forward with this. We’ve done a lot of great things.” (Listen to Cutcliffe’s postgame press conference here)
The Blue Devils started out as if they were going to run all over the Bearcats, but this game had more momentum swings than a pendulum and no one knew who would have it in the final minutes. Duke appeared to be on their way to a potential game winning touchdown while winding down the clock at the same time. Then disaster struck just as it had earlier in the contest.
With the score knotted at 34-all, Josh Sneed coughed up the ball at the five and with the ball still in the air he reached for it and almost got it back.
“We had an exchange and I didn’t have it fully in control of myself and the guy handled it and it squirted out,” said the sophomore running back. “I almost recovered it and a guy came from behind and when he kind of grabbed them and pushed me forward and I couldn’t grab it.”
When the whistle blew Cincinnati defensive lineman John Williams had come away it so with just 1:20 left and deep in their own territory the Bearcats would have been excused if they just let time run out and go into overtime. They didn’t.
As was the case all evening, big plays were the story and it took the Bearcats all of four plays to take the lead for good. A couple of runs were sandwiched around an incomplete pass before senior quarterback Brendon Kay hit tight end Travis Kelse over the middle between a couple of Duke defenders and streaked 83 yards for the score.
Duke wasn’t out of it because there were 39 seconds left on the clock when they took over at their own 32. Senior quarterback Sean Renfree, who had a record setting day going 37-49 for 358 yards, completed his final pass, a 13 yards strike to sophomore Jamison Crowder out to the 45, but after an incomplete pass, Renfree was hit as he was releasing the ball and it landed in the hands of linebacker Nick Temple who rumbled 55 yards for the put-away score.
“It was a phenomenal game,” said Brendon Kay. “It was momentum swing after momentum swing. It just shows the resiliency that this group had. It’s phenomenal; I just can’t put it into words.” His biggest play other than the game winner? “I think, probably, the first touchdown to (junior wide receiver) Anthony McClung. We were really struggling at that point [and] we really needed someone to make a play. That’s the one that sticks out to me.”
At that time the Bearcats were down 16-3 due mostly to the defense’s inability to stop plays on the initial hit. Many big plays for Duke resulted in poor tackling and Cincinnati looked lifeless until the Kay to McClung 25 yard touchdown hookup. But it was the defense that set up the five-play, 54 yard drive by coming up with a big stop on fourth and one 6:10 into the second quarter.
Duke seemed on the way to burying Cincinnati early in the game when up 16-3 they were poised to punch in another TD to go up by 20. Like the fumble that cost them the game, this time it was Jela Duncan who lost the ball at the one yard line. Momentum had shifted in favor of the Bearcats and the next time they touched the ball they would march 54 yards to make it 16-10. However, the Blue Devils had an ace in the hole and they thought it would get old “Mo” back on their side.
On a fourth and 17 from their own 19, punter Will Monday booted a nice spiral that was not caught and all it did was roll down the sideline. It did not stop until the two, a kick of 79 yards which was a Belk Bowl record. As long as it was, the punt was just the third longest in Duke history, but it put Cincinnati back on their heels with just 2:28 remaining in the half.
The Cats broke out a bunch of big plays to go 98 yards to take the lead. Brendon Kay would take off for 26 of his 88 yards rushing on the day before hooking up with McClung for 30 more and his final pass went to Ralph David Abernathy IV for 41 and the score. The entire drive took just 1:53.
“We knew Cincinnati wasn’t going to lay down,” said Duke senior safety Walt Canty. “They are a great team. They won nine games, 10 games now, so we knew it was going to be a tough fight.”
Kay was the outstanding player of the game needing just 17 completions for a whopping 332 yards with four touchdown passes. Kelce would lead all receivers with123 yards, McClung chipped in with 110, while senior back George Winn quietly ran for 135 averaging more than eight yards a carry.
For Duke, they put up some big number in their own right with Renfree throwing for 358, senior wideout Conner Vernon catching 10 for 119 yards and Snead gaining 107 on the ground.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Cutcliffe said. “Cincinnati made too many big plays, they made too many explosive plays and we didn’t finish our opportunities. It’s as simple as that. Congratulations to Cincinnati, but also hat’s off to the Duke players for a hard-fought game and continuing to fight for 60 minutes.”
“We hung in there,” said Cincinnati Interim Head Coach Steve Stripling. “We’ve been that way all year, starting slow. It was an exciting finish. I told the team afterwards that they are an elite team with ten wins. (Listen to Stripling’s full postgame press conference with quarterback Brendon Kay here)