Dukes Brandon Connette celebrates a first-quarter touchdown.

BANK OF AMERICA STADIUM/CHARLOTTE No matter how things turn out, it’s a very big night in the history of Duke football.

The 6-6 Blue Devils are taking on 9-3 Big East co-champion Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, the first football meeting between the two teams and the Blue Devils’ first bowl appearance since 1994. The Bearcats are in their fifth bowl game in the past six seasons.

Duke’s most recent bowl victory was way back in 1961, when Bill Murray’s club beat Arkansas 7-6 in the Cotton Bowl.
But David Cutcliffe clearly has the Blue Devils’ program headed in the right direction, and tonight on ESPN they’re in the only live televised football game in the country.

Cincinnati is coached tonight by interim mentor Steve Stripling, with Butch Jones having departed to become the new head coach at Tennessee. And the Bearcats come in as seven-point favorites.

Duke puts on a fantastic offensive show but still comes up short, turning the ball over four times to none for the winners as Cincinnati wins 48-34.

The Blue Devils establish their offense on the first possession, going 79 yards in eight plays with Brandon Connette going around left end from five yards out for the score. Ross Martin’s conversion kick is blocked and it’s 6-0 with 11:48 left in the period.

Martin adds a 33-yard field goal at the end of an 11-play, 44-yard march and Duke leads 9-0 at 6:12.

Dukes Conner Vernon goes for extra yardage as the Bearcats Arryn Chenault closes in.
  • Photo by Chris Baird
  • Duke’s Conner Vernon goes for extra yardage as the Bearcats’ Arryn Chenault closes in.

Things keep going Duke’s way, as Cincinnati goes three-and-out for the second possession and the Blue Devils take advantage in the best way. Tony Foster blocks a Pat O’Donnell punt and returns it 26 yards for a touchdown,
Duke’s first blocked punt return for a score since 1997. Martin’s boot makes it 16-0 at 4:45.

Cincinnati salvages some pride late in the quarter, as Tony Miliano’s 45-yard field goal at 1:43 completes an eight-play, 50-yard march.

Duke gets a chance for a big working margin on its next possession. But with 11:56 left in the half Jela Duncan fumbles at the Cincinnati 1 and the Bearcats’ Greg Blair recovers.

The Bearcats cut it to 16-10 with 4:02 left in the half. Brendon Kay hits Anthony McClung from 25 yards out to finish a five-play, 54-yard drive and Miliano adds the boot.

Cincinnati takes the lead with 42 seconds left in the half. Kay connects with Ralph David Abernathy IV (yes, his grandfather was part of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle) on a 41-yard pass with Miliano adding the boot to make it 17-16.

Duke’s chance to get the lead back fizzles when Martin misses a 48-yard field-goal attempt at the horn.

Cincinnati makes it 20-16 with 10:02 left in the third on Miliano’s 27-yard field goal to finish an eight-play, 70-yard drive. The key play of the march is Kay’s 55-yard strike to McClung to the Duke 10.

And things get worse for the Blue Devils. Two plays after Arryn Chenault intercepts a Sean Renfree pass and returns it 21 yards to the Cincinnati 40, George Winn sprints to the end zone from 46 yards out and Miliano adds the boot at 7:41.

But Duke gets up off the canvas. Renfree finds Conner Vernon from 10 yards out to complete an 11-play, 50-yard drive and adds the conversion pass to Isaac Blakeney, making it 27-24 with 3:00 left in the quarter.

The Blue Devils get the lead back with 12:45 to go, as Connette connects with David Reeves from two yards out to finish a nine-play, 68-yard excursion. Martin adds the try and it’s 31-27.

Cincinnati accomplishes another lead change at 11:19, as Kay connects with Chris Moore from 25 yards out to finish a four-play, 77-yard march and Miliano adds the boot.

But Martin ties it with 7:24 to go, completing a 10-play, 46-yard drive by hitting a 52-yard field goal for his career best and a Belk Bowl record. Martin’s 106 points on the season are a new school record.

The Blue Devils appear to be headed for the winning score, but with 1:20 left Josh Snead fumbles at the Cincinnati 6 and John Williams recovers.

It takes the Bearcats four plays to go the 94 yards, with Kay hitting Travis Kelce on an 83-yard scoring play and Miliano adding the boot with 44 seconds left.

Cincinnati locks it up with 14 seconds left, when Nick Temple grabs a tipped Renfree pass in traffic and returns it 55 yards to the end zone. Miliano’s kick finishes the scoring.

Duke finishes with 560 yards total offense to 554 for the winners, but turns the ball over four times to none for Cincinnati.

Kay is named the game’s MVP after completing 17 of 25 passes for 332 yards and a Belk Bowl-record four TDs. Kelce catches five passes for 123 yards and the TD and McClung three for 110 and the TD. Winn carries 16 times for 135 yards and the TD.

Renfree completes 37 of 49 for 358 yards and a TD with two interceptions. Snead carries 17 times for a career best 107 yards. Vernon catches 10 passes for 119 yards and the TD.

They said it …

Cutcliffe: “Congratulations to Cincinnati. They made the plays they had to make to win. We played well enough to win the ball game — I told our team there was no question this was a bowl-worthy team and not just a bowl-eligible team. You learn through years of doing this, and I think it’s evident in our locker room. There’s a big difference between winning a bowl game and losing one. But the biggest insult we could pay to our seniors is to not move forward and build off of this.”

Vernon: “We just had a few bad breaks at the end of the game. We fumbled twice inside the red zone. But at the end of the day we still had a chance to win and that’s what you’ve got to take out of this. We just didn’t close it out. Except for the turnovers we were executing pretty well. It was college football, a game of momentum. We were going back and forth and it was fun.”

Snead: “I’ve got great teammates. They encouraged me to keep my head up. If you have a little adversity, you’ve just got to face it. I’m one of the leaders on the team and I can’t show myself down. We’ve got to build off of this, come out in 2013 with this in the back of our heads.”

What does it all mean?
That Duke may have come up short, but the Blue Devils put on a good show to end the season and should have a bright future.

Stars of the game
1. Kay.
2. Renfree.
3. Kelce.

Play of the game
Kay’s TD pass to Kelce for the go-ahead points.

Duke: Lost 5.
Cincinnati: Won 3.

All-time series
Cincinnati leads 1-0.

Up next
2013 season openers

Dukes Josh Snead breaks a tackle with the Blue Devils Perry Simmons (72) in on the play.
  • Photo by Chris Baird
  • Duke’s Josh Snead breaks a tackle with the Blue Devils’ Perry Simmons (72) in on the play.