The Duke Blue Devils ended their 2012 football season with a heartbreaking loss in their first bowl appearance in 17 seasons, falling to the Cincinnati Bearcats in a game much closer than the 48-34 final score suggests.
The Belk Bowl was, in many ways, representative of Duke’s entire season: a strong start, a lot of fight, and a disappointing end.
The team started the game strong, jumping out to a 16-3 lead in the first quarter. They allowed 27 unanswered points, giving Cincinnati a 27-16 lead, before battling back late in the third quarter – reclaiming the lead, losing it again, and then pulling even with fewer than ten minutes remaining.
In the end, though, the Blue Devils unraveled. Milking the clock, driving for a touchdown with second-and-goal and under two minutes to play, running back Josh Snead fumbled the ball.
It was a fatal mistake. Four plays later, Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay connected with tight end Travis Kelce for a Belk Bowl record 83-yard touchdown. When Duke got the ball back, senior quarterback Sean Renfree threw an interception after taking a hard hit, and it was returned 55 yards for another touchdown, ending any chance of the team winning its first bowl game in more than half a century.
The game was essentially a condensed version of Duke’s 2012 season, wrapped up in one exciting, frustrating, chaotic 60-minute package.
Just as the team jumped to an early lead in the Belk Bowl, it also started the year strong. Duke was 5-1 by early October, with only a loss to Stanford standing in the way of a 6-0 start.
After a mid-October loss to Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils could have folded – and in past years, probably would have – never reaching that elusive sixth win for bowl eligibility. Instead, they dug in their heels and beat North Carolina by just three points, ending the Tar Heels’ four-game win streak and securing Duke’s first bowl bid since 1994.
Becoming bowl eligible was a huge accomplishment for David Cutcliffe‘s squad, but it was the last thing the team achieved this year. The Blue Devils dropped their final four regular-season games, falling quickly from 6-2 to their final 6-7 record.
In the Belk Bowl, and in the regular season, Duke’s surprising early success was short-lived. The team’s play in their season’s finale, and throughout 2012, was both an encouraging display of the team’s improvement and potential, and a frustrating display of how far the Blue Devils still are from a bowl win and an overall winning season.