Eighteen has been the magic number for Duke football this year. All season long, the Blue Devils sought to bury their recent past by breaking a number of streaks that span back to 1994.
The most notable of these streaks was broken when Duke earned bowl eligibility with a heart-stopping win against North Carolina. And when the team’s bid at an ACC Coastal Division title fell a game short, and the Blue Devils finished the season 6-6, head coach David Cutcliffe set his sights on breaking another streak—clinching the team’s first winning season in 18 years.
But if the Blue Devils wish to do so, they must snap another streak that spans well beyond 1994: Duke must win a postseason game for the first time since Jan. 2, 1961, when the then-No. 10 Blue Devils knocked off No. 7 Arkansas 7-6 in the Cotton Bowl.
Duke (6-6) has the chance to do both when it squares off with Cincinnati (9-3) in the Belk Bowl Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. After earning a share of the Big East Championship in 2012, the Bearcats are set to provide a difficult matchup on both sides of the ball in the first-ever matchup on the gridiron between the two schools.
The Blue Devils, now more than two months removed from their last victory, will have one last chance to end the season on a high note.
“This is an opportunity that we haven’t had the last three or four years that I’ve been here. Every single time we played on Thanksgiving we lost that game and that’s how we finished our season—with a sour taste in our mouth,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We lost our last game on Thanksgiving but now we have another opportunity.”
After posting a 45-point outburst in a losing effort against Miami in their final regular season contest, the Blue Devils will have their hands full against a stout Cincinnati defense, which is led by two first team All-Big East honorees, linebacker Greg Blair and defensive end Dan Giordano.
Blair, who ranked second in the Big East this season with 123 tackles and added 8.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions and six pass breakups on the year, is the focal point of the Bearcat defense. Allowing just 17.2 point per contest, Cincinnati ranks 12th in the FBS in scoring defense.
Duke’s defensive unit has not had similar success. In the midst of the Blue Devils’ four-game losing skid to end the regular season, Duke allowed an average of 49.5 points per game in losses to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami. After facing a pass-happy slate of ACC opponents, the Blue Devils focus will shift when facing off with Cincinnati’s ground-and-pound offense. Redshirt senior running back George Winn will carry most of the load for the Bearcats, leading the Big East with 1,204 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
The Belk Bowl will also mark the first postseason action seen by quarterback Brendon Kay. The redshirt senior, who took over the starting quarterback job from Munchie Legaux with just four games remaining in the season, led the Bearcats to a 3-1 record down the stretch and threw for over 900 yards in the span. Used predominantly as a short-yardage rushing threat and appearing in six of Cincinnati’s first eight games, much like Duke’s Brandon Connette, Kay is a threat to make plays with both his arm and his feet.
“If somebody had to ask me to describe them in one word, I would say athletic. A very athletic team that plays really hard,” Cutcliffe said. “When you get that combination, they just play good football. They don’t give up sacks, they don’t turn it over, they don’t give up third downs—they do what wins games.”
The game’s opening drives will be crucial for the Blue Devils, who have not been successful when facing early deficits this season. The Bearcats have thrived in the opening moments of their contests this year, outscoring opponents a combined 103-39 in the first quarter of their 12 games.
Duke hopes that tinkering with its usual lineup will snap the team out of its recent funk. Cutcliffe announced four position changes that were made during practices leading up to the Belk Bowl. Freshman Shaquille Powell, a highly recruited running back in high school, will move to safety and 6-foot-5, 285-pound redshirt sophomore Nick Sink, who started the final seven games of the season for the Blue Devils at defensive tackle, will try his hand at the tight end position.
“It’s something that gives us some options to look at and there will be other [position changes] when we go forward and start to look at the 2013 team,” Cutcliffe said.
The ACC’s Coach of the Year has held firm to his belief that although this postseason contest has a number of ramifications for his current team, it simultaneously marks the end of the 2012 season and the beginning of a new year for Duke football.