CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Extending the football season by a month, the Blue Devils’ first trip to a bowl game in 18 years originally meant that most Duke football players would have to spend the majority of their winter break on campus for bowl preparation.
But as fate would have it, the convenient location of the game actually allowed a number of Blue Devils to return home for the holidays.
“This is giving the Duke football family and our fan base a great opportunity to see us in postseason play,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I’ve done this a long time, and [Belk Bowl Executive Director] Will Webb and the people that run the Belk Bowl, they’re not just good at what they do—they’re great. It’s the first bowl experience for my team and it’s been very special.”
Thursday’s Belk Bowl marks Duke’s first postseason appearance within the state of North Carolina since the 1942 Rose Bowl was played at Wallace Wade Stadium. It also signifies a homecoming for a number of Blue Devil players, including Kelby and Kyler Brown, Ross Cockrell, Jamison Crowder, Braxton Deaver, Jela Duncan and Justin Foxx.
Not only will the game’s location allow the Blue Devils to play in front of a home crowd, but it will also allow a number of Duke players to realize childhood dreams. The Blue Devils will take the field Thursday evening at Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Many of Charlotte’s native sons suiting up for Duke grew up attending Panthers games with their families, and will now have the opportunity to step out onto the same field as some of their childhood heroes.
“It’s going to be a weird feeling,” Cockrell said. “I’ve been at a lot of games and watched [the Panthers] play there. So it’s weird going from being in the audience to actually being on the field.”
Charlotte has been the focal point of Duke’s in-state recruiting during Cutcliffe’s five-year tenure. The game’s close proximity will also allow a number of future Blue Devils and top high school players to see Duke’s program up close and personal.
“It’s great for the program,” Cockrell said. “People from Charlotte and high school players can now see that Duke is on the upswing. We’re doing well and we’re trying to build a program and they can see it before their very eyes.”
As for the game itself, Cutcliffe added that playing the game within the state of North Carolina should provide the Blue Devils with some sense of a home-field advantage against a talented Cincinnati squad. For a team that managed just one win away from home this season, every little bit helps.
“A couple of days ago we were leading the ACC in postseason sales. I’m pretty proud of that,” Cutcliffe said. “Cincinnati travels well, but the people in the crowd that are neutral, I’m hoping they won’t be Duke-haters. I certainly think we’ll have a chance at a little more noise than Cincinnati because we are the home team.”