TEAMS: Duke Blue Devils (6-6, 3-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3, 5-2 Big East Conference)
TIME: Thursday Dec. 27, 6:30 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: Cincinnati -9; Over/Under 61 points
Duke snapped a bowl drought of 17 years on Oct. 20, when the Blue Devils topped rival North Carolina, 33-30. That leaves Washington State with the longest run of bowl-less seasons among BCS conference programs at nine years.
Oct. 20 is also noteworthy, because it was the last time Duke won. The Blue Devils descended from 6-2 to .500 with four consecutive losses by an average of 25.5 points per game.
Losing skid aside, David Cutcliffe’s coaching job was nothing short of astonishing. The Blue Devils weren’t just out of the postseason for much of the last two decades — they were the dregs of all BCS conference programs, regularly finishing in the ACC cellar.
While Duke is treading on new ground, Cincinnati closed the 2012 regular season in a familiar place. The Bearcats won a share of the Big East Conference championship for the fourth time in five seasons, and under its second head coach. Butch Jones maintained the standard established under Brian Kelly, and in turn, Jones is bound for Tennessee.
UC opted not to hire Central Michigan’s Dan Enos, instead scoring one of the stranger coups of the coaching carousel season in Tommy Tuberville. Bridging the Jones and Tuberville eras is interim Steve Stripling.
Stripling faces a much less daunting task in his interim turn than Cincinnati’s last. Jeff Quinn relieved Kelly for the 2010 Sugar Bowl, and was given a 51-24 thrashing for his efforts by Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
David Cutcliffe has a track record for cultivating professional quarterbacks, namely Peyton and Eli Manning. Duke’s Sean Renfree is projected to make the leap to the NFL in April’s draft.
Renfree has thrown for 2755 yards on 66.3 percent completions, 18 touchdowns and been intercepted just eight times. The Duke quarterback has spread the ball primarily among four receivers, with Jamison Crowder and Conner Vernon the top two.
Crowder has 1025 yards on 70 receptions, including a team high eight touchdowns. Vernon has 75 catches for 955 yards and seven touchdowns.
Crowder’s great season comes after an offseason of tribulation. He and teammate Blair Holliday were involved in a watercraft accident that nearly cost Holliday his life. He’s made a quick recovery and been an inspirational presence on the Blue Devil sideline, supporting Crowder and the rest of the Dukies.
Duke’s potent passing game getting the best of Cincinnati would be the ultimate climax to this story, but that’s no easy feat. While the Blue Devils are scoring better than 31 points per game, the Bearcat defense has been great all season. UC has allowed just 17.2 per, despite losing its best player midway through the season, Walter Stewart.
Greg Blair is among those Bearcats who have really stepped up. Blair’s made 123 tackles and intercepted two passes at the inside linebacker position. Defensive end Dan Giordano has picked up the slack Stewart’s absence left in the pass rush, making a team best five sacks. The Blue Devil line must contain Giordano to give Renfree time to operate; Duke’s offense is built primarily on the passing game, as ball carriers have combined for only 119 yards on the ground per game.
Duke must also score, and frequently. A defensive contest does not benefit Cutcliffe and Co. in the slightest — mostly because the Blue Devils haven’t shown the ability to play such a game. The 30 North Carolina scored is the lowest point total a Blue Devil opponent has reached since Oct. 6. Over that time, Duke has given up scores of 41, 48, 56, 42 and 52 points.
Cincinnati has struggled some establishing a consistent offensive identity. Quarterback Munchie Legaux was benched late in the season for Brendon Kay. The Bearcats lose nothing in the ground game with Kay starting instead of Legaux, but gain in the pass. Kay has been more consistent at 61.9 percent completions, to Legaux’s 52.2. Kay also has a superior 3:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Legaux’s was slightly higher than even (13 touchdowns to nine interceptions).
Protecting the ball is essential for Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, as turnovers are the only realistic chance the Duke defense has to limit UC. Duke is giving up just shy of 200 yards rushing per game, so expect a heavy dose of running back George Winn.