CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Duke football put an end to many losing streaks in 2012. Becoming bowl eligible and earning elusive wins against ACC rivals North Carolina and Wake Forest were just some of the accomplishments the Blue Devils will ultimately use to define this season.
But as Duke enters its 2013 campaign, it will be haunted by the one streak it was unable to break this year—a winless streak in bowl games that now stands at 51 years and counting.
The Belk Bowl Thursday night against Cincinnati (10-3) marked Duke's first postseason appearance since 1994, and its chance chance to bring home its first bowl victory since 1961. The Blue Devils (6-7) fell 48-34 at Bank of America Stadium. But in a game highlighted by the stellar play of two opposing quarterbacks, the defense decided the contest in the final minutes.
“At the end of the day, we still had a chance to win and I think that’s what you have to take out of this,” senior wide receiver Connor Vernon said. “But we weren’t satisfied with just making it to a bowl game. We came to Charlotte with the intention of winning.”
Five yards from the end zone with the contest knotted at 34-34, the Blue Devils had an opportunity with 1:20 left to notch the game’s winning score. Redshirt sophomore running back Josh Snead took the ball up the middle and seemed to have a crease before the Bearcats' Brandon Mills collided with Snead, forcing the ball to come out at the six-yard line. Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay’s go-ahead 83-yard touchdown pass to Travis Kelce with 44 seconds left sealed Duke’s fate, finishing the season on a five-game losing skid.
Duke looked to have an answer to Kay’s long touchdown pass after a 13-yard completion from Renfree to Crowder and a roughing-the-passer penalty against the Bearcats gave the Blue Devils great field position. But it was Cincinnati’s defense that came up big in the end, when Renfree was hit by Malik Bomar, resulting in his pass being intercepted by linebacker Nick Temple and returned 55 yards for the game’s final touchdown.
“There’s a big difference between winning a bowl game and losing one,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said.
Throughout the game, both defenses fell victim to the opposing quarterback being able to pick through their coverage with ease. Redshirt senior quarterback Sean Renfree threw for 358 yards on 49 attempts, including a touchdown to Vernon.
Quarterback Brendon Kay and the Bearcat wide receivers were simply too explosive for a depleted Duke secondary. Kay finished his Cincinnati career throwing for 332 yards and four touchdowns on just 25 attempts. His two favorite targets in the vertical passing game, Kelce and wide receiver Anthony McClung, finished with 123 and 110 receiving yards, respectively, and combined for two touchdowns on eight receptions.
“They made big plays, they made too many explosive plays and we didn’t finish our opportunities,” Cutcliffe said.
Duke jumped out to an early lead with a drive which was capped by a five-yard touchdown run by redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Connette. Redshirt senior Cornerback Tony Foster provided a highlight on special teams when he blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown, extending the Blue Devils’ lead to 16-0. Cincinnati responded by scoring 27 unanswered points.
Although both offenses appeared to steal the show, freshman punter Will Monday may have had the play of the game, booting a punt 79 yards to the Bearcat two-yard line. Kay, however, did not let the poor field position bother him, leading a 98-yard drive to give Cincinnati a 17-16 halftime advantage.
The Bearcats came out strong in the second half but had to settle for a field goal after a strong stand by the Duke defense. The Blue Devils tried to increase the pace, going back to the no-huddle offense they began the game with, but Renfree made a mistake when Arryn Chenault intercepted a ball thrown into double coverage.
On the ensuing drive, running back George Winn took a handoff and ran straight up the middle, mostly untouched, for a 46-yard touchdown.
Although Cincinnati gashed Duke’s defense, the Blue Devil offense operated on all cylinders going into the fourth quarter. They opened the quarter the same way they ended the third—throwing short passes for long gains. A two-yard pass from Connette to tight end David Reeves put the Blue Devils up 31-27 with 12:45 left in the game.
Kay answered once again, this time with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Chris Moore, putting the Bearcats up 34-31. After Renfree failed to complete a third-down pass on Duke’s next drive, freshman kicker Ross Martin hit a career-long 52-yard field goal.
“I was completely focused for that kick. I’ve done it a hundred times before,” Martin said.
The end of Duke’s season also marks the end of an era for the team’s senior class. Cutcliffe lauded his seniors, who gathered in the locker room after the game while he commended them for their efforts.