Known much more for their prowess in basketball than in football, the Duke Blue Devils appeared in a bowl game for the first time this century. Despite a losing regular-season record in their own conference, this ACC team barely cracked the .500 mark necessary for bowl eligibility. They faced a Cincinnati squad with a much superior regular-season record earned in a less imposing conference, the Big East, and held virtual home-field advantage at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina. Post-regular season coaching turmoil had left the Bearcats in chaos, so this bowl offered a different sort of mental challenge for each team. While Duke adjusted to the unfamiliar experience, Cincinnati coped with internal uncertainty.
Looking very much like a team that belonged in a late-December football game, the Blue Devils drove nearly 80 yards on their opening possession for a touchdown without facing any formidable down-and-distance situation. Quarterback Sean Renfree opened the drive with a 20-yard pass that sent a message of intent and later raced untouched into the end zone on a keeper. But the most intriguing play of this efficient march down the field came on the extra-point attempt, blocked by Cincinnati—and then recovered by the Duke kicker and carried into the end zone for an unexpected two-point conversion—and then overturned upon official review. Much less scintillating was the three-and-out from the opposing offense that followed, which allowed Duke to retain its momentum. Leading in a bowl game for the first time in more than 50 years, they continued to carve up a Cincinnati defense that had stifled many of its Big East opponents. So confident had the Blue Devils grown in their ability to move the ball that they converted a fourth down at the Bearcats 21. Unable to find the end zone again, they settled for a 33-yard field goal. Cincinnati then endured its second straight three-and-out when its receivers could not find room to compile yards after the catch on short passes. In the second exciting special-teams play of the quarter, Duke blocked the ensuing punt and recovered it in the end zone for their second touchdown.
Trailing by double digits after barely ten minutes, Cincinnati finally converted a first down with a determined scramble by quarterback Brendon Kay. After a near-interception changed into an incompletion under review, they retained possession to kick a long field goal for their first points. Driving back inside Cincinnati territory before the quarter ended, however, Duke continued to dominate the Belk Bowl with ten first downs to the opposition’s two.
Duke 16, Cincinnati 3
Just when another touchdown beckoned for the Blue Devils, a costly fumble within a yard of the Bearcats goal line halted their momentum and gave Cincinnati fresh life. With another scramble by Kay for a first down negated by a penalty, Cincinnati could not exploit the opportunity and instead returned the ball to Duke in strong field position. The Blue Devils offense also had started to sputter in this quarter, illustrated by a failed fourth-and-one conversion on the type of running play that had worked for them earlier. Given more time to throw, Kay floated a delicate fade pass for a large gain on the first play from scrimmage. Just a few plays later, the Bearcats completed by far their best possession of the half with a 25-yard touchdown toss that sliced the Duke lead to within a score. Their momentum quickly fading, the Blue Devils avoided disaster on their next possession when an interception returned for a touchdown failed to stand upon review. When they punted soon afterwards, the ball rolled 79 yards to pin Cincinnati inside its own 5, maintaining their advantage on special teams. Kay managed to scramble out of that ominous field position on a third-down play and suddenly used that momentum to convert a series of deep plays that culminated with a spectacular 41-yard touchdown throw. Deserving part of the credit for that play, wide receiver Ralph David Abernathy IV ducked and dodged Duke defenders in his last few strides towards the goal line as he completed the 98-yard drive. In a bizarre finish to the half, the Blue Devils maneuvered into position for a 54-yard field goal, which their kicker miraculously made—only to see it called back on a Cincinnati penalty and miss the shorter retake.
Moribund through the first quarter and even longer, the Bearcats had sprung to life behind two key defensive plays: the fumble recovery at their own 1-yard line and the defensive stop on fourth-and-one. Once offered the time to regroup, their offense had capitalized in erasing a 16-point deficit.
Cincinnati 17, Duke 16
Again keeping a drive alive with his legs, Kay soon afterwards connected with Anthony McClung on a 55-yard catch-and-run play that set up an and-goal opportunity. A stop inside the 1 on second down combined with a false start penalty to force a deep third-and-goal play from Cincinnati, however, and Kay narrowly failed to break free on an improvised dash towards the end zone. All the same, the Bearcats ran their streak of consecutive points to 20 with a short field goal, placing the burden on Duke to finally respond. Although he moved his offense to midfield, Renfree then threw his first interception of the game as the Blue Devils continued to unravel. Just two plays later, the Bearcats turned the turnover into a touchdown with a long scoring run, capitalizing on Duke’s season-long susceptibility to big plays. Duke’s own running game failed to find the openings that it had early in the game, forcing the offense to revert back towards the passing mentality that it had used in the regular season. But Renfree reignited them with a long completion to inside the Bearcats red zone on a third-and-nine play as another drive threatened to stall. Finally scoring for the first time since the first quarter, Duke snapped the streak of 27 consecutive Cincinnati points with their second offensive touchdown and the two-point conversion that followed. By forcing a punt soon afterwards, they maintained the initiative in a game filled with wild momentum shifts.
Cincinnati 27, Duke 24
With the passing game established again, Duke turned its attention to revitalizing the running game and succeeded in using it to penetrate the Cincinnati red zone for the second straight possession. From the Wildcat formation, running back Brandon Connette threw a short touchdown pass to provide Duke with its first lead of the second half. Not wasting any time in finding an answer, Kay marched the Bearcats down the field for a touchdown of their own following a costly pass-interference penalty. The lead now had changed hands three times as the action built towards its climax. When the Bearcats managed to stop Duke with crisp pass defense, the Blue Devils kicker knotted the score with a 52-yard field goal that recalled his kick from 54 before halftime. Stopped a yard short of a first down on their next possession, Cincinnati gave Duke strong field position with barely five minutes remaining. Duke smartly drained the clock with a series of short passes and run plays. With the ball at the five-yard line, though, the Blue Devils fumbled on the verge of a touchdown just as they had in the second quarter. With less than a minute left, Kay connected on an 83-yard touchdown throw to tight end Travis Kelce for the game-winning score in one of the most dramatic plays of the bowl season to date. Cincinnati then delivered the coup de grace with another turnover return for a touchdown after a sack of Renfree.
Finishing the season with five straight losses, Duke undermined its own cause with two costly fumbles that turned touchdowns into touchdown drives by Cincinnati. Those turnovers proved the difference in a game that grew more engaging as it progressed as the Bearcats won the turnover battle 4-0 and, more importantly, converted every takeaway into seven points. The Blue Devils were left to lament a game of missed opportunities in which they came within a yard of leading by 20 points midway through the second quarter, while the Bearcats could take pride in surviving this rollercoaster.
Final score: Cincinnati 48, Duke 34