CHARLOTTE — Deep in the bowels of Bank of America Stadium, a hoard of reporters waited for answers outside Duke’s locker room. In the final 90 seconds of Thursday night’s Belk Bowl, the Blue Devils had managed to go from having the ball on Cincinnati’s 5-yard line in a 34-34 game to losing 48-34. And now everyone wanted the Blue Devils to explain how it happened, and, more to the point, how it made them feel.
As the Cincinnati players came off the field hollering and smiling, Ross Cockrell, Duke’s first-team all-ACC cornerback, emerged. Instantly, he was surrounded.
The end was crazy, he said, looking ahead without actually looking at anyone. Cincinnati made more plays. When asked about the locker room scene, though, Cockrell went right to the silver lining.
“There is some joy that we were here and the seniors are leaving at least with the bowl experience,” he said. “But there is a lot of pain. We lost the game, it was a tough loss for us.”
“That’s how it is, I guess.”
And that’s how it was for Duke (6-7), making its first bowl appearance since 1994: a mixture a disbelief and stinging pain, but also acknowledgement and realization that playing in the Belk Bowl showed progress from the days of the zero and one-win seasons that aren’t too far in the past.
But it could have gone further. With 6 more yards and two fewer fumbles, Duke could have won a bowl game for the first time since the 1961 Cotton Bowl.
The fumbles were costly: Jela Duncan fumbled at Cincinnati’s 1-yard line in the second quarter when the Blue Devils led 16-3, and Josh Snead’s lost the ball on the Cincinnati 5, when Duke just needed a field goal to break a 34-34 tie with 1:30 left.
But playing for a field goal is not how coach David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper operate. Onside kicks and fake punts are staples of Duke’s play calling, so it should come as no surprise that the Blue Devils were going for the touchdown on a drive that consumed almost four minutes.
“I wanted to score a touchdown and run the clock down,” Cutcliffe said. “And their play after we turned it over obviously showed why we were letting the clock go.”
Duke forced a Cincinnati three-and-out and started on its own 43 with 5:17 left. The Blue Devils called five rushes on the next seven plays to set up a first-and-goal from Cincinnati’s 8. After Snead ran 3 more yards, Cincinnati called timeout with 1:32 left.
On second-and-goal from the 5, Brandon Connette was at quarterback with a zone-read option. He handed the ball to Snead, and Bearcats defensive lineman Brandon Mills forced it loose. Fellow defensive lineman John Williams recovered it at the bottom of the pile at the 6-yard line.
The Bearcats needed just four plays and 41 seconds to find the end zone, as Brendon Kay hit tight end Travis Kelce, who slipped behind the defense for an 83-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left for a 41-34 lead.
Duke wasn’t done.
A 13-yard completion and 15-yard penalty on Cincinnati pushed the ball to the Bearcats 40. But Sean Renfree was hit as he attempted his final college pass. Nick Temple intercepted it and ran 55 yards for the game’s final score with 14 seconds left.
“I could talk about a bunch of plays at any point,” Cutcliffe said with a frustrated roll of his eyes as he raised his hands off the podium. “Just missed opportunities. Obviously, when a ball comes out, that’s unfortunate. I never get overly carried away with that if people practice well. It’s kind of like field goal kickers and missed kicks with running backs. If you have bad habits in practice and we’re constantly having to correct the way you’re carrying a ball, you concern yourself. I have no problems with the way our backs, all of them, carry the ball in practice.”
After the game, while reporters clustered around Cockrell, other Blue Devils emerged. One was Snead, who voluntarily came out knowing that he would have to talk about that fumble.
“It’s going to help me grow as a man,” Snead said. “You really can’t learn from winning, but you can learn from losing, so we are going to learn from things like this.
“It’s hearbreaking, becuase we wanted to win this game for our seniors. But I think as a team, we are going to learn from this and build on the momentum from this.”
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley