Amid a rollercoaster season, Duke football's Birmingham Bowl victory showed togetherness, heart and effort

Chandler Rivers (left) and Trooper Taylor lie in the confetti after winning the Birmingham Bowl.
Chandler Rivers (left) and Trooper Taylor lie in the confetti after winning the Birmingham Bowl.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—This season truly had it all. 

From the emotional rollercoaster of the primetime victory against Clemson and College GameDay’s first appearance in Durham, to the difficulties of an injury-riddled season and a less-than-smooth coaching departure, one thing has stayed constant: the love and unbreakable bond between this group of players. 

And in Duke’s 17-10 win Saturday against Troy in the Birmingham Bowl, the team put together an admirable on-field product one last time that highlights the DNA of the Blue Devils — this team plays hard, works together and does the little things it takes to win. 

“We did have a roller-coaster season,” said interim head coach Trooper Taylor. “But it's just like life. Things come at you, but how you react to those things is what matters.”

Taylor was visibly emotional during his postgame interviews, and it was fitting that he got the opportunity to be the interim coach. With his genuine care for every player and his famous mantras for both football and life, Taylor has been the embodiment of Duke football for the past five seasons, and the players clearly admired his presence in the program. 

“He's meant absolutely the world to us,” said graduate running back Jaylen Coleman. “When we learned he was taking the interim head coaching job, everybody was on board.”

“A lot of people talk about family when it comes to football all the time, and I think [Taylor] means that more than anybody I've met in my time playing football,” said sophomore kicker Todd Pelino. 

Duke is certainly right in the middle of a seismic shift in college football, where the transfer portal and NIL dominate the discourse around the upcoming offseason. Players leave for a variety of reasons to improve their circumstances or for a change of scenery, and a few key Blue Devils — including quarterback Riley Leonard — are moving on. 

But the fact that some players who entered the portal — Jordan Waters, Jaylen Stinson and Aeneas Peebles among them — wanted to wear the blue and white for one more game shows the desire to represent the team on the front of their jerseys and spend more time with this group.  

Players hoist the Birmingham Bowl trophy.
Players hoist the Birmingham Bowl trophy.

“Blood just makes you kin ... love, trust, respect, commitment, hard work, that makes you family,” Taylor said. 

The game itself was akin to much of Blue Devil football for the past two seasons — big plays on the defensive end of the ball forcing costly mistakes. Troy failed to convert on three fourth-down conversion opportunities, and graduate safety Jeremiah Lewis recorded a game-sealing interception on Trojan quarterback Gunnar Watson. 

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

That edge was rooted in the adversity that this team has faced, but the response has been what is remarkable. It manifests itself on the field to create a high-energy bunch that has a chip on its shoulder, who clearly had something to prove after a chaotic few weeks. 

“[The energy] was contagious,” Taylor said. “We tried to focus and concentrate on what we could control. But we weren't going to get silly penalties … because how we do anything is how we do everything.”

There’s a lot of understandable excitement for the next chapter, but amidst all the outside noise, the bowl victory was a special one for this team, illustrating the power of its work ethic.

“A bowl game is about a reward for the season that you play, it's not about the season that's coming up,” Taylor said. “And this was a reward for the guys on the team, the coaches and their families.”

Case in point: a player like Coleman. After struggling with injury and not getting many touches through the first month of the season, he was rewarded for his continued dedication with Duke’s only touchdown of the game.  

“It's been fun, man, every step of the way, it's been such a joy to be around my boy Chandler [Rivers] and my boy Todd [Pelino], and knowing that Duke football is in good hands,” Coleman said. 

Coleman put his arms around Rivers and Pelino during that last statement, a fitting symbol for passing down the reins of Duke football from this historic senior class, who helped create a culture defined by both teamwork and dedication. 

This team has a bright future, and some of the players that stepped up in the biggest moments, like Rivers and Pelino, will be returning. 

“You don't build a house from the roof down, you build it from the foundation up,” Taylor said. “And I can tell you about this senior class, most people look at a brick wall, they see the pretty bricks, I see the mortar in between. These guys are the mortar and all they did was build a foundation for the young guys to continue that.”

Taylor mentioned an important trip earlier in the week to Selma, Ala., which really brought the team together, as they visited various Civil Rights monuments and took a picture atop the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge. This was important in putting a pin on a season that meant more than football — it meant brotherhood and family.  

 “[The bridge] stood for something different for everybody on the team, but at the end of the day, we were all there together, and that is what matters,” Taylor said. “That picture will last us all a lifetime. Nobody can take that from us. Nobody.”

Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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