CHARLOTTE—Wild momentum swings have been a feature of several Duke games this year, and the Belk Bowl was no exception.
In the week leading up to the Belk Bowl, the Blue Devils’ first bowl appearance since 1994, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe raved about the intensity his team had brought to practice. It certainly carried onto the field in the first quarter, in all three phases of the game. And it returned in the third quarter, when Duke was able to mount a comeback and re-take the lead and then tie the game again.
But ultimately, two fumbles inside the Bearcats’ 6-yard line spelled doom for Duke as Cincinnati scored in the final minute for a 48-34 victory.
“We didn’t finish our opportunities,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Duke wasted no time getting started, scoring on its first three drives of the game and building a 16-0 lead. The Bearcats responded with the next 27 points to build a 27-16 advantage with 7:41 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 fourth quarter. 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 offensive records were broken during the game. Duke quarterback Sean Renfree set new highs for pass completions and yards, finishing 37-of-49 for 358 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The two teams combined to set new highs in first downs (55) and total points (82). Martin kicked a 52-yard field goal, re-setting a record broken by Cincinnati kicker Tony Miliano earlier in the game.
Despite the deluge of offense, Duke was in a position to win the game late thanks to a defensive stop.
On third-and-2 from the Cincinnati 33-yard line, Anthony Young-Wiseman and Justin Foxx stopped Cincinnati’s George Winn one yard short. With the game tied at 34-34, the Bearcats punted with 5:17 remaining.
Duke started at its 43-yard line. Josh Snead ran for a first down and Conner Vernon caught another. On third-and-1 from the Cincinnati 26-yard line, Brandon Connette rushed for two yards. Vernon then caught a 13-yard pass and ran out of bounds at the Cincinnati 8-yard line with 1:32 remaining on the clock.
But Snead fumbled at the Cincinnati 6-yard line - Duke’s second fumble inside the Bearcats’ 6-yard line - and John Williams recovered for the Bearcats with 1:20 remaining in the game.
“Somebody’s hand got in there,” Snead said. “And it popped out.”
It took Cincinnati just four plays and 36 seconds to march 94 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 in the game. A 55-yard interception returned for a touchdown by the Bearcats’ Nick Temple made the final score 48-34.
After the game, Vernon tried to put his reaction to the Snead fumble into words.
“You just kind of sit back and smile, it’s one of those things, I guess, things aren’t 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 of the game. The offense continued its methodical movement all the way to the Cincinnati 12-yard line on its fourth drive. With a 16-3 lead, Renfree completed a pass to Jela Duncan, but the freshman fumbled on the 1-yard line.
“Maybe, just maybe our luck will change soon,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re 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, that’s 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 Cincinnati’s 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.