Quick Summary: Four turnovers and inconsistent defensive play dooms Duke, as the Blue Devils fall to the Cincinnati Bearcats 48-34 in the Belk Bowl.
One of my favorite sports films is Friday Night Lights, a small-town football drama centered around the Permian Panthers and the variety of personalities their team consists of. At one point in the movie, the Panther’s running-back, Don Billingsley, has a football duct-taped to his hands while his drunken father pummels him and screams at him to hold onto the football (Don has a notorious fumbling problem).
I had this particular scene stuck in my head for a good twenty minutes following the conclusion of the Belk Bowl.
The Duke Blue Devils (6-7) turned the ball over four times, twice inside of the opposition’s five-yard line, and saw their defense collapse after a promising start en route to a 48-34 loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats (10-3).
The game was full of runs, with Duke racing out to a 16-0 lead before Cincinnati went on a 27-0 run before Duke went on a 15-0 run before Cincinnati closed out the game with a 14-0 run. Cincinnati utilized the big play, scoring touchdowns of 25, 41, 46, 25, 83, and 55-yards throughout the game, adding several other plays of 25+ yards throughout.
The Blue Devils started out well, scoring their first touchdown just three minutes into the game on a Brandon Connette run and tacking on a 33-yard Ross Martin field goal six minutes later to push the lead to 9-0. Tony Foster and the special teams unit would join the party just a minute later, blocking a Cincinnati punt and recovering it in the endzone for a touchdown. Cincinnati would answer with a field goal to make it 16-3, but the Blue Devils immediately responded, quickly driving down to the Bearcats’ 12-yard line. That’s where the trouble started.
Faced with a 3rd-and-7, Renfree dumped the ball off to RB Jela Duncan over the middle. Duncan scrambled all the way down to the 1-yard line of Cincinnati where he was met by multiple Bearcats, resulting in a fumble and a costly turnover. Instead of taking a 23-3 lead, the Blue Devils found themselves on the wrong side of momentum.
The Bearcats wouldn’t turn the fumble into points, but the fumble would turn into a snowball effect, becoming the first of numerous Duke miscues throughout the second quarter.
A failed conversion on fourth-and-short gave Cincinnati the ball near mid-field, which the Bearcats converted into their first touchdown of the season. Duke would then push the Bearcats back onto their own two-yard line following a 79-yard punt by Will Monday, but the defense continued to crumble, surrendering a 6-play, 98-yard drive that spanned less than two minutes.
The rest of the game would turn into a mix of an offensive showcase and a tape on how to not play defense. Cincinnati’s barrage of big plays and Duke’s ability to string together long and effective plays resulted in the two teams locked in a 34-34 tie with five minutes remaining.
Duke, utilizing a strong rushing attack, brought the ball down to Cincinnati’s five-yard line with just 1:40 left in the game. However, Just as quickly as Duke fans began to prematurely celebrate a bowl victory, their hopes were dashed. Sophomore RB Josh Snead fumbled the ball as he made his way into the endzone, with Cincinnati coming up with the football again.
Cincinnati wasted no time in completing their demolition of the hopes and dreams of Duke fans, as QB Brendon Kay found TE Travis Kelce over the middle for an 83-yard touchdown pass, giving the Bearcats a 41-34 lead with just 50 seconds remaining.
Any thoughts of a comeback didn’t last long, as Renfree was intercepted for the second time, this one being returned 55-yards for a touchdown by Nick Temple.
To the notes!:
-Duke boasted one of their better rushing attacks of the season, achieving 200 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. Josh Snead led the way, rushing 17 times for 107 yards. Outside of his late-game fumble, Snead played a fantastic game.
-Sean Renfree ended his college career with a 358 yard, 1-touchdown performance. His only real mistake came on an interception thrown into double coverage in the second half, killing what had started out as a promising drive for the Blue Devils. The second interception isn’t on him, as he was crushed by an unblocked Bearcat while throwing the ball.
-The Blue Devils fall to 6-7, failing to earn their first winning season since 1994. Duke ended the season on a 5-game losing streak.
-This was the sixth straight game in which the Blue Devils allowed at least 30 points. If Cutcliffe wants to take the next step forward with this program, he’ll need to do it through the defense, which has been absolutely dreadful this season.
‘Twas a fun season. Here’s hoping the next few are even more enjoyable.