CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon sees Thursday night’s Belk Bowl against Cincinnati as a perfect opportunity to help the Blue Devils’ football team emerge from basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s shadow.
This is Duke’s first bowl game in 18 seasons, and the Blue Devils have their 6:30 p.m. time slot to themselves on a day with two other bowl games.
“Anybody who follows college football will be watching, so this is our chance in the national spotlight to take a big step forward with this program and let people know about us,” said Vernon, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s career leader in receptions and yards receiving.
Duke (6-6) hasn’t won a bowl game since 1961.
“Is there a lot of pressure on us? Absolutely,” said quarterback Sean Renfree. “But good players like added pressure, and they thrive on it.”
Coach David Cutcliffe called this game the next step in trying to build a winning tradition and raise the level of expectations of the players, similar to what his friend Krzyzewski has done on the hardwood.
“This is national exposure for us,” Cutcliffe said. “The NFL is not playing. We’re it. We’re the game. So people across the country who maybe heard a little bit about Duke football, if they see us play as well as we can play, I think they will be a little shocked. We have a lot of speed and a lot of skill. So this can have a huge impact for us.”
And Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils are on the verge of something special.
“I don’t plan on not making a bowl again — and that’s the mentality I want every player to have. … When I talked to coach Krzyzewski, there is no question what the expectations of a Duke basketball player are,” Cutcliffe said. “And that’s the opportunity we have — to create really big expectations.”
Duke faces a Cincinnati team in transition after the departure earlier this month of coach Butch Jones and both coordinators.
Jones left to take the job at Tennessee, so defensive line coach Steve Stripling will serve as interim head coach Thursday night. Incoming coach Tommy Tuberville will also be on hand to watch but won’t have any input on game day.
Jones went 23-14 at Cincinnati the last three years.
The Bearcats (9-3) finished tied for the best record in the Big East Conference but are left with only five full-time coaches from Jones’ staff to work the game. They’ll have new coordinators calling the shots on both sides of the ball.
Stripling led Central Michigan to a 44-41 win over Troy in the 2010 GMAC Bowl before joining Jones’ staff. Stripling, who’ll call the plays on defense, said his biggest concern had been keeping his team focused through adversity.
He said the play calls won’t change.
“What we’ve tried to do from the beginning, because this is such a different situation for them, is try to find some normalcy,” Stripling said. “You try to keep them in their comfort zone and keep them focused.”
Despite the changes, the Bearcats come in as 7-point favorites. That’s largely because they have a high-powered offense that’ll be facing a Blue Devils defense that collapsed down the stretch.
After a rare win over rival North Carolina to go 6-2, the Blue Devils lost their final four games to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami. During that stretch, Duke’s defense surrendered a whopping 51 points and 294.5 yards rushing per game.
That should play into Cincinnati’s hands.
Led by senior tailback George Winn, the Bearcats enter the game ranked 31st in the country in rushing. After serving as a backup for most of his career at Cincinnati, Winn has emerged as a leader on offense, running for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Cutcliffe said Winn reminds him of Cadillac Williams, a guy who can put the team on his back and carry 25 to 30 times per game.
“I’ve had a chance to carry this offense and step up and take on a big role,” Winn said. “I think that has meant a lot to this team, and that’s meant a lot to this team which wasn’t given a chance, at least offensively, do anything special this year.”
Duke will need its offense to be in high gear.
Renfree completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,760 yards with 18 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. His favorite targets are Vernon and Jamison Crowder, who combined for 145 receptions and 15 touchdowns. Desmond Scott also caught 60 passes.
Cincinnati features a bend-but-don’t-break defense.
“We kept teams off the scoreboard, which is big,” Stripling said. “I think that’s going to be the key.”
Stripling laughed when asked if he foresees a high-scoring affair.
“Well, I’m a defensive guy, so I don’t think that way,” he said. “Ultimately I think this game will be about which defense steps up to the challenge.”
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