CHARLOTTE — As Conner Vernon stood in the hallway, the Cincinnati players filed off the field, laughing and jumping on their way to their locker room after the trophy presentation.
Amid all the noise, Vernon, in his own words, was still struck kind of speechless at how his college career ended.
To come so far, to come so close, and lose like that there are few words that would fit. Duke had the ball inside the Cincinnati 10-yard line, less than two minutes to go, grinding out the clock, setting up the go-ahead and likely winning score in the Belk Bowl on Thursday at Bank of America Stadium.
And then Josh Snead fumbled. And Cincinnati scored. And Sean Renfree threw an interception and Cincinnati scored again. And the game the Blue Devils were about to win, their first bowl appearance in 18 years, ended up a 48-34 loss.
At the end of the day, we still had a chance to win the game, said Vernon, the record-setting Duke receiver. Weve got to close it out. Simple as that.
At the very least, it was worth the wait. Dukes first bowl in 18 years offered no shortage of drama and controversy. The way it ended might sting for that long as well.
Unlike the North Carolina game, when Duke drove down the field to score the winning touchdown with 13 seconds to play, the 39 seconds the Blue Devils had left Thursday werent enough to clinch their first bowl win since 1961.
Renfrees deflected pass fell into the arms of Nick Temple, who took it back for a touchdown.
Renfree, who was hit hard on the play, was down for a long time before getting up and walking slowly off the field for the last time.
It was a heartbreaking conclusion to his career and a brutal ending to a crazy game, one Duke knows was there for the taking.
Its heartbreaking, because we wanted this game for our seniors, Snead said. As a team, well learn from this.
Duke jumped out to a 16-0 lead. Cincinnati scored 27 straight points.
Duke answered with two touchdowns. The Bearcats answered with a touchdown of their own.
Duke tied the score at 34 on a 52-yard field goal by freshman Ross Martin and there were still 71/2 minutes left to play.
At every turn, it was one heck of a football game maybe not one for the defensive purists, but certainly more entertaining than anyone has a right to expect from a 6-6 ACC team and a Cincinnati team that just lost its coach to Tennessee.
And so Dukes season of rebirth ended with a tortuous twist, all-but-certain victory lost in the final minutes, but the work getting to this point will not be forgotten.
Duke football is relevant again, Vernon said.
Duke basketball is Duke basketball. But at the end of the day, we proved Duke football does have a program that means something.
Duke has only 13 scholarship seniors, although they include some of the programs most important players: Vernon, Renfree, Durham Hillside product Desmond Scott, center Bryan Moore, linebacker Austin Gamble and safeties Jordon Byas and Walt Canty.
They came so far. They came so close.
Those wont be easy pieces to replace, but they built the foundation that future teams will rely upon.
The next Duke team that does win a bowl will have them to thank, even if they couldnt get it done in this final game.
DeCock: email@example.com; Twitter: @LukeDeCock; 919-829-8947