CHARLOTTE At the very least, it was worth the wait. Dukes first bowl in 18 years offered no shortage of drama and controversy. The way it ended, the way the Blue Devils lost, that might sting for as long as well.
Twice, Duke had a chance to put the game away. Twice, Duke fumbled within sight of the goal line. Once in the first half, when the Blue Devils could have taken a 20-point lead. Once with 80 seconds to go, when the Blue Devils could have run down the clock and scored with little or no time left.
Jela Duncan lost the ball on the goal line in the second quarter. Josh Snead lost it inside the 10-yard line in the waning moments, leaving just enough time for an 83-yard touchdown pass that gave Cincinnati the go-ahead touchdown on the way to a 48-34 win.
Unlike the North Carolina game, when Duke drove down the field to score with 13 seconds to play, the 39 seconds the Blue Devils had left werent enough to clinch their first bowl win since 1961. Sean Renfrees deflected pass fell into the arms of Nick Temple, who took it back for a touchdown.
Renfree, who was hit hard on the play, was down for a long time after the play before getting up and walking slowly off the field for the last time. It was a heartbreaking conclusion to a crazy game, one Duke will know was there for the taking.
Duke jumped out to a 16-0 lead. Cincinnati scored 27 straight points. Duke answered with two touchdowns. The Bearcats answered with a touchdown of their own. Duke tied the score 34-34 on a 52-yard field goal by freshman Ross Martin and there were still 71/2 minutes left to play.
At one point, the Blue Devils were inches away from going up 23-3 and all but putting the game away. The ball spilled out of Duncans hands, bounced on the grass and into the arms of a Cincinnati player.
At one point, the Bearcats were up 27-16 and the Blue Devils were left for dead, only to put together two long drives and retake the lead.
At one point, it looked like the next score would win. At one point, it looked like the last score would win.
At one point, it looked like the Virginia Tech game, when Duke jumped out to a 20-0 lead and lost 41-20. At one point, it looked like the North Carolina game, when Duke scored the winning touchdown with 13 seconds to go.
At every point, it was one heck of a football game maybe not one for the defensive purists, but certainly more entertaining than anyone has a right to expect from a 6-6 ACC team and a Cincinnati team that just lost its coach to Tennessee.
And so Dukes season of rebirth ended with a tortuous twist, all-but-certain victory lost in the final minutes, but the work getting to this point will not be forgotten.
Duke has only 13 scholarship seniors, although they include some of the programs most important players: Renfree, record-setting wide receiver Conner Vernon, Durham Hillside product Desmond Scott, center Bryan Moore, linebacker Austin Gamble and safeties Jordon Byas and Walt Canty.
Those wont be easy pieces to replace, but they built the foundation that future teams will rely upon. The next Duke team that does win a bowl will have them to thank, even if they couldnt get it done in their final game.