CHARLOTTE — Wild momentum swings have been a feature of several Duke football games this year, and the Belk Bowl was no exception.
In the week leading up to the Blue Devils first bowl appearance since 1994, coach David Cutcliffe raved about the intensity his team had brought to practice. It certainly carried onto the field during the first quarter, in all three phases of the game. And it returned during the third quarter, when Duke was able to mount a comeback and retake the lead and then tie the score again.
But two fumbles inside the Bearcats 6 spelled doom for the Blue Devils as Cincinnati scored twice during the final minute for a 48-34 victory.
We didnt finish our opportunities, Cutcliffe said. Its as simple as that.
Duke wasted no time getting started, scoring on its first three drives and building a 16-0 lead. The Bearcats responded with the next 27 points to build a 27-16 advantage with 7 minutes, 41 seconds left in the third quarter. Duke answered with the next 15 points, which added up to a 31-27 lead with 12:45 left in the game. Cincinnati sandwiched two fourth-quarter touchdowns around a Ross Martin field goal, and a late interception returned for a touchdown sealed the win.
Several Belk Bowl records were broken. Dukes Sean Renfree set highs for completions and yards, finishing 37-of-49 for 358 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. The teams combined to set marks in first downs (54) and total points (82). Martin kicked a 52-yard field goal, setting a record broken by Cincinnatis Tony Miliano in the game.
Despite the deluge of offense, Duke was in a position to win late thanks to a defensive stop.
On third-and-2 from the Cincinnati 33, Anthony Young-Wiseman and Justin Foxx stopped Cincinnatis George Winn a yard short. With the score 34-34, the Bearcats punted with 5:17 remaining.
Duke started at its 43. Josh Snead ran for a first down and Conner Vernon caught a pass for another. On third-and-1 from the Cincinnati 26, Brandon Connette rushed for 2 yards. Vernon then caught a 13-yard pass and ran out of bounds at the Cincinnati 8 with 1:32 remaining.
Two plays later, Snead fumbled at the Cincinnati 6 Dukes second fumble inside the Bearcats 6 and John Williams recovered for the Bearcats with 1:20 remaining.
Somebodys hand got in there, Snead said, and it popped out.
It took Cincinnati just four plays and 36 seconds to march 95 yards down the field. Travis Kelce caught an 83-yard pass from Brendon Kay, leaving Walt Canty behind him as he ran all the way to the end zone, giving Cincinnati a 41-34 lead with 48 seconds left. A 55-yard interception returned for a touchdown by the Bearcats Nick Temple completed the scoring.
After the game, Vernon tried to put his reaction to the Snead fumble into words.
You just kind of sit back and smile, its one of those things, I guess, things arent going to go our way tonight, Vernon said. But at the end of the day, it happened.
Duke built a 16-0 lead by scoring on its first three possessions. The offense continued its methodical movement all the way to the Cincinnati 12 on its fourth drive. With a 16-3 lead, Renfree completed a pass to Jela Duncan, but the freshman fumbled on the 1.
Maybe, just maybe our luck will change soon, Cutcliffe said. Were hoping so.
-- Belk Bowl executive director Will Webb was pleased with the ticket sales for both Duke and Cincinnati. Duke sold 11,000 of the 12,500 tickets allotted to the athletic department. Based off of media reports, thats more than any other ACC team going to a bowl game this year, Webb said. Duke fans also bought tickets through other outlets, including directly from the Belk Bowl, and Webb said there were over 20,000 Duke fans in attendance. Cincinnati distributed 10,000 of its 12,500 tickets, and Webb estimated that there were 10,000 Bearcats supporters in attendance.
-- On Cincinnatis second drive of the game, Duke safety Jordon Byas delivered a big hit on Cincinnati tight end Travis Kelce. The play appeared to rattle Byas more than Kelce, and he went down on one knee on the field and was walked off by medical personnel. Two plays later, though, Byas was back on the field, and he delivered another hit on Kelce and immediately left the game. He did not return.