In this year’s Walk-On’s Independence Bowl, expect one former walk-on to take center stage.
Daniel Jones, who came to Duke’s campus in 2015 without a guaranteed scholarship, enters the Blue Devils’ bowl contest in a much different position than the one he occupied just a bit more than three years ago. A long way from being a somewhat unheralded walk-on quarterback, Jones is now one of Duke’s captains and a potential first-round prospect, and may be suiting up in a Blue Devil uniform for the last time this week before declaring for the NFL Draft.
While there is a legitimate chance this is the final game of Jones’s collegiate career, Thursday afternoon’s Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., which kicks off between Duke and Temple at 1:30 p.m., will certainly be the finale for the Blue Devils’ seniors, including Jones’s co-captains Ben Humphreys and Johnathan Lloyd, who each have three years of starting experience.
Those ending their time with Duke football certainly hope to go out with a bang.
“I’ve seen for years and years how emotional seniors get before a bowl game and certainly after,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It makes a heck of a difference when you can go out a winner, and that’s what the focus needs to be for all of us.”
However, winning has not come easy for Duke (7-5) lately. After emerging from nonconference play with a perfect 4-0 ledger, the Blue Devils dropped five of their last eight contests.
The most recent defeat, which came in the team’s regular-season finale against Wake Forest Nov. 24, marked a true low point for Duke. Despite playing at home as 9.5-point favorites, the Blue Devils fell 59-7 to the Demon Deacons, the largest margin of defeat for any squad in Cutcliffe’s tenure in Durham.
Despite the obvious morale loss that resulted from this blowout loss, Duke will need to rebound in order to secure just its sixth bowl win in program history.
“In my entire career, any loss stays with you until you get back on the practice field,” Cutcliffe said. “Hard work is the best formula for healing.”
The Blue Devils would surely appreciate healing in the physical sense as well. Although the injury bug has plagued the team up and down the roster, the defense has been particularly decimated, as key pieces Mark Gilbert, Edgar Cerenord and Deondre Singleton all were knocked out for the season at some point.
Perhaps the two most important pieces of the Duke defensive unit, Humphreys and redshirt junior Joe Giles-Harris, who lead the team’s superb linebacker corps, are both questionable to suit up against the Owls (8-4) with lower body injuries.
“Even if we were perfectly healthy, we would be extremely challenged by this team,” Cutcliffe said. “Our team will need to execute extremely well in order to compete with Temple.”
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Don’t let its early loss to FCS Villanova fool you—this Temple team is the real deal. The Owls have won six of their last seven games, and held a halftime lead against No. 7 Central Florida in their sole loss in that span.
Jones will face what may be his toughest competition of the season in Temple’s defense, which allows 5.1 yards per passing attempt, a 103.1 passer rating and 166.3 yards through the air per contest, good for No. 1, No. 5 and No. 7 in the nation, respectively.
Offensively, the Owls rely on the run, with senior running back Ryquell Armstead leading the way, with 1,098 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, good for 10th in the nation. The Millville, N.J., native put up an absurd line of 210 yards and six touchdowns against Houston Nov. 10, finishing just one score shy of the school’s single-game record.
“I think if they can run the football on you, you’re going to have a long afternoon,” Cutcliffe said. “You’re not going to stop them, but what you’ve got to do is minimize explosive plays and them converting first down after first down.”
If the Blue Devils prevail in the Independence Bowl, it will be just their fourth season of eight wins or better season in the last 20 years. In fact, this Duke squad can make history—given the Blue Devils’ victory in last year’s Quick Lane Bowl, the team has a chance to win bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.