Cincinnati, Duke meet in Belk Bowl

It’s been quite a few weeks surrounding the Cincinnati Bearcats’ football program.

After completing a strong 9-3 season, the Bearcats found themselves in a state of limbo.

And it had absolutely nothing to do with what bowl they’d play in because since they didn’t win the Big East outright, the Bearcats kind of had a feeling it would be a trip to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte since the Bowl Championship Series bid for the conference went to Louisville because of its ranking in the final poll.

The limbo was created by now former head coach Butch Jones. It seemed like every coaching opening that popped up during late November and early December, he was linked to. At first, it appeared as if he’d be heading to Colorado. He later turned that job down and eventually accepted the head job at Tennessee on Dec. 7.

The Bearcats’ administration didn’t sit around and sulk after losing the highly successful Jones, who replaced Brian Kelly, who left to take the Notre Dame job three seasons ago. Cincinnati hired highly successful coach Tommy Tubberville away from Texas Tech on Dec. 8.

If the coaching search wasn’t enough, the Bearcats – and basically all of the membership of the Big East – find themselves in a state of limbo because of the continual conference realignment. All of the basketball-only members of the Big East have voted to dissolve the league, while Rutgers is headed to the Big Ten, which join Pitt and Syracuse, who are heading to the ACC next season and West Virginia, which bolted the Big East for the Big 12 in June.

Now, as the bowl games have began to take the attention off of the coaching searches and conferences, the Bearcats have a chance to focus strictly on their upcoming challenge, which is a date with the Duke Blue Devils in the Belk Bowl.

The Bearcats and Blue Devils will meet on Thursday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte with kickoff slated for 6:30 p.m. This week’s game will be the first-ever meeting between the two schools.

Cincinnati is the only school in a FBS Automatic Qualifier conference to have won at least a piece of its conference title in four of five years. Included was the piece of the pie the Bearcats won last season, but they were dispatched to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis because, similarly to this season, the Bearcats missed out on the BCS berth, which was claimed by WVU.

As they’ll try to do this week, too, the Bearcats put that disappointment behind them and managed to win the bowl game against Vanderbilt, 31-24.

A win this week would put UC in illustrious company. It would be their fifth win in six bowl appearances. Only Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon have accomplished such a feat.

While the Bearcats were trying to figure out their coaching situation, the Duke Blue Devils struggled down the stretch.

Duke got its sixth win, assuring bowl eligibility, in October and it hasn’t won since as it battled its way through the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Blue Devils actually sprinted out of the gate to a 6-2 record, which included a victory against rival North Carolina. However, consecutive losses to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami ended their season.

For the Devils, it’s the first time since 2004, they’ve qualified for a bowl game. It’ll be the first appearance under head coach David Cutcliffe, who was named ACC Coach of the Year for his efforts in guiding the Blue Devils’ turnaround.

While it’s their first appearance in eight years, it’s only the ninth time ever that Duke has reached a bowl game and this is the 100th anniversary of their program. All told, they own a 3-5 record.

In five years at the helm, Cutcliffe has had the ultimate and on-going challenge of restoring the Blue Devils’ football program. He’s just 21-39 for his career at Duke.

Stepping in for the aforementioned Jones, who departed immediately to begin the process of rebuilding the Volunteer program, will be Steve Stripling. It’s not unfamiliar territory for Stripling. When Jones took the UC job, Stripling was named Central Michigan’s interim coach and led the Chippewas to a 44-41 double overtime victory against Troy in the 2010 GMAC Bowl.

If the stats hold true like they did during the season, the Belk Bowl could be highly entertaining and feature a lot of points. And if the trend of the late season continues for the Blue Devils, this could be an evening in which the Bearcats score a bundle of points.

The Blue Devils score at a 31.3 points per game clip, but they allow 35 points a game and more than 450 yards of total offense a game.

That could play right into the Bearcats’ hands because they average better than 430 yards a game. Cincinnati’s defense allows 373 yards per contest, meaning there could be a significant number of first downs gained and points scored.

So, what’s going to give?

The Bearcats made a quarterback change in early November because of the inconsistent play of Munchie Legaux, who was the starter for much of the season. He replaced Steubenville High product Zach Collaros.

If you remember, Legaux stepped in for Collaros last season when he went down with a fractured ankle. Collaros came back to play in the bowl game.

Legaux just never fully got comfortable as the starter and Jones made the switch to Brendon Kay because of “inconsistent play.”

Kay has passed for 966 yards on a solid 70-of-113 accuracy as the starter and in split time. He’s tossed six touchdowns and only been picked off twice.

Leagaux threw for 1,716 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also threw nine touchdowns.

The Bearcats have been exceptional on the ground. The leader, who also had to step into some big shoes, is George Winn. He’s ran for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns. R.D. Abernathy has been solid as well with 366 yards and three touchdowns.

All told, UC has ran for 2,397 yards and 24 touchdowns on the season.

The Bearcats’ receivers are well balanced in the stat listing. The leader is Travis Kelce, who caught 40 balls for 599 yards and seven touchdowns. Kenbrell Thompkins caught 32 passes for 523 yards and two scores. Anthony McClung has made 31 catches for 429 yards.

Abernathy and Damon Julian have also made more than 20 receptions.

The Duke defense is led by all-ACC player Walt Canty, who shines from his linebacker spot. He’s made 51 solo and 51 assisted tackles. He’s also checked in with 5.5 tackles for loss.

Jordan Byas is the Devils’ second-leading tackler with 80 tackles in nine games. Ross Cockrell is the team’s third-leading tackler with 63 stops. He’s also picked off five passes and had an impressive 17 pass defenses credited to him.

Dwayne Norman and C.J. France are also impressive tacklers with 57 and 56, respectively.

While the Bearcats seek offensive balance for the most part and have found it, the Blue Devils are more of a pass-happy team, which is what you’d expect from Cutcliffe, who tutored both Peyton and Eli Manning during their respective collegiate careers.

Sean Renfree is the Blue Devils’ quarterback and has been solid. He’s thrown for 2,755 yards and 18 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Renfree is currently the ACC active leader in career passing yards (9,107), completions (861) and games played and started (40 and 34). He’s listed in the top five in two other categories as well.

The Blue Devils’ receiving corp features three players with better than 60 catches. Jamison Crowder is the leader in terms of yardage with 70 receptions for 1,025 yards and eight touchdowns. Vernon Conner has made 75 catches for 955 yards and seven touchdowns. Desmond Scott has hauled in 61 balls for 606 yards.

The Blue Devils aren’t strictly a passing squad. They’re averaging 119 yards per game on the ground. Jela Duncan leads the way with 516 yards and four touchdowns on 99 carries. Josh Snead has carried the ball 82 times for 389 yards and two scores. Juwan Thompson has gained 322 yards.

Brandon Cornette is the goal line runner as evidenced by his seven rushing touchdowns, which leads the team.

The Bearcats’ defense is led by Greg Blair, who recorded 123 tackles during the regular season. He also had 2.5 sacks, 8.5 stops for loss and two INT.

Maalik Bomar has made 75 tackles. Dan Giordano has recorded 51 total tackles and Nick Temple’s been in on 48 stops.

The Bearcats had the unenviable task of replacing Derek Wolfe after last season along the defensive line. Wolfe – a former Beaver Local standout, was a first-team all-American last season and Big East Defensive Player of the Year. He was eventually drafted in the second round by the Denver Broncos and is currently a starter at tackle.


THE GAME will be broadcast live on ESPN with Mike Patrick, Ed Cunningham and Jeannine Edwards on the call.

IF YOU’RE making the trip to Charlotte for the game, Lady Antebellum will perform a concert in Charlotte at the Belk Bowl FanFest.

THE TEAMS arrived in Charlotte on Saturday and have been treated to a week’s worth of activities, including a reception at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. They enjoyed Christmas dinner as a team and both teams practiced Tuesday afternoon.

WHILE THIS is Duke’s ninth bowl game all-time, it’s the 23rd bowl game for its head coach. Cutcliffe is 4-1 as a head coach in the postseason.

WHEN YOU think Duke, basketball is the first thought, but probably a close second is academics. The Blue Devils’ football program ranked tops in the ACC once again. According to the university’s game notes, Duke has had 224 players earn Academic All ACC.

THIS WILL be the final game for 24 Cincinnati seniors this week. Duke, meanwhile, has just 13 seniors.

LOOKING AHEAD, when Tubberville assumes control of the team, his first schedule will include home games at Purdue, Northwestern State and road trips to Illinois and Miami of Ohio prior to league play.

OF THE Bearcats’ roster, 48 of the players hail from the state of Ohio.