FALL OF TROY: Duke football closes book on 2023 season with dominant Birmingham Bowl win against Troy

Aeneas Peebles celebrates after sacking Troy quarterback Gunnar Watson in the first quarter of the Birmingham Bowl.
Aeneas Peebles celebrates after sacking Troy quarterback Gunnar Watson in the first quarter of the Birmingham Bowl.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.— No wooden horse required. 

After a season of ups and downs, Duke finished things out the right way, holding off Troy 17-10 in the Birmingham Bowl to finish the season 8-5 and send its senior class off into the sunset while picking up the program’s fifth straight bowl victory. 

“A bowl game is about a reward for the season that you play. It's not about the season that's coming up. It's about the season that you play. And this was a reward to give the guys on the team and coaches, their families,” interim head coach Trooper Taylor said postgame.

After an impressive fourth-down stop by Anthony Nelson in Trojan territory in the fourth quarter, Duke (8-5, 4-4 in the ACC) seemed primed to put the game away. But as he went to unload a deep ball to Sahmir Hagans, freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis was hit as he was throwing, causing the ball to sail into Damaje Yancey’s hands and give Troy a chance to make this a real game down the stretch.

The Trojans (11-3) did just that, using running back Kimani Vidal and a deep shot to Peyton Higgins that was coupled with a roughing the passer penalty to set themselves up on the goal line. Chandler Rivers was able to affect a double pass attempt to set up third-and-goal, but Troy dipped into its own bag of tricks, finding offensive lineman Derrick Graham for a receiving touchdown to make it a seven-point game.

Even with all the momentum swinging towards the Trojans and the Troy faithful making noise in Protective Stadium, Duke was able to sink the sword, with Jeremiah Lewis picking off quarterback Gunnar Watson to seal the victory for the Blue Devils. 

“We played Duke football, just been playing all year," said Birmingham Bowl MVP Chandler Rivers. "I mean, we just found another energy, we found that edge." 

As has been the case several times throughout the season, Duke was down multiple starters on both sides of the ball. The Blue Devils were missing two of their starting offensive tackles in Graham Barton and Jake Hornibrook while Brandon Johnson, R.J. Oben and Dorian Mausi were the absences on the defensive end. 

After a flurry of punts to open the game, the Blue Devils finally showed some signs of life on offense, as the ground game spearheaded by junior running back Jaquez Moore helped interim head coach Trooper Taylor’s unit march down the field. A rifle from Loftis down the sideline to Jalon Calhoun put Duke on the doorstep, and graduate rusher Jaylen Coleman finished the job, putting Duke up six, and some trickery on the two-point try gave the Blue Devils an 8-0 lead in the first quarter. 

Duke came out swinging for the fences, with Loftis trying for a double move to wideout Jordan Moore on his first snap of the game. While the pass fell incomplete, the Trojans were whistled for pass interference, seemingly helping gain some momentum for an opening drive score. But two plays later, disaster struck, as Loftis was strip-sacked by defensive end T.J. Jackson to give the ball back to running back Kimani Vidal and the Troy offense. 

The Trojans seemed ready to capitalize on this early opportunity, as their first play of their second drive began with a huge jet sweep to wideout Jabre Barber who was wrestled down inside the 20-yard line. A play later, a Vidal scamper seemed to give the Sun Belt champs an early touchdown lead, but a holding penalty gave the Blue Devils a second chance, which defensive tackle Aeneas Peebles pounced on, sacking Watson to force an unsuccessful 47-yard field goal try. 

By midway through the second quarter, Loftis seemed to have found his rhythm, distributing the ball to a multitude of pass catchers. On the 11-play, 50-yard drive that ended with kicker Todd Pelino giving Duke a 11-0 lead, Loftis found success targeting five different pass catchers, including freshman Sean Brown who gained 12 yards on a tunnel screen for his first career reception. A strike to Sahmir Hagans over the middle set up Duke inside the 20, and Pelino finished it off with a 34-yard boot. 

Duke continued to flex its muscle on offense throughout the remainder of the first half, stringing together an impressive 16-play, 54-yard drive to finish the half that was characterized by once again spreading the wealth, as three different running backs toted the rock on the series as Loftis found four different receivers for gains. With another make from Pelino, Duke entered the half up two touchdowns. 

But as their name suggests, the Trojans fought back in the second half. After forcing an early punt, Watson seemed to have found juice for the last 30 minutes, as he piloted the offense past midfield, but four straight incompletions forced a turnover on downs and Watson to the sideline banged up after taking a big hit from Peebles on fourth down. 

The Butler, Ga., native found similar success on his second time out in the third quarter, leading a 10-play, 53-yard drive that led to a field goal, highlighted by several well-placed throws from the gunslinger, ultimately allowing Troy to cut Duke’s lead to 14-3. 

Despite losing the shutout, the Blue Devil offense did not miss a beat. Loftis quickly maneuvered his side down the field thanks to four straight completions including a 28-yard pickup by Coleman, and Pelino sent his third opportunity of the game through the uprights to extend the lead back to 14. It was a lead Duke would never surrender.

When asked about the impact this victory had on the graduating class, Coleman said that “being able to say that we're two for two in bowl games, it's something special. So we're happy to bring this to the Duke community, population of the school, everything.”

The Blue Devils now will look towards spring ball, the first chapter of the Manny Diaz era. 


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