Off paper, however, the situation could not have been any worse for the Bearcats. Featuring a patch work coaching staff full of grad assistants and student managers, Cincinnati was at a major disadvantage, especially going against one of the most respected minds in college football in Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. And in the first 12 minutes, that disadvantage was the story of the game.
Behind an opening drive touchdown, Duke dominated the first quarter, scoring the opening 16 points and rendering the usually potent Cincinnati defense useless behind an array of new defensive schemes. The Duke defense even helped put some points on the board behind a blocked punt by cornerback Tony Foster that he recovered in the end zone, making the score 16-0 in favor of the Blue Devils.
Just when the game looked like it was getting out of hand for the Bearcats, UC went on to score 17 unanswered points behind two Brendon Kay touchdown passes, one to junior Anthony McClung, and the second to Ralph Abernathy IV, making the score 17-16 in favor of Cincinnati. The end of the half is where things got a little testy.
With Duke lining up to attempt a 53-yard field goal, Cincinnati was running an 12th player off the field as Duke snapped the ball for the kick. Duke kicker Ross Martin nailed the 53-yarder, however, the kick was nullified due to UC's illegal substitution penalty, essentially icing the kicker without any timeouts remaining. Duke coach David Cutcliffe was visibly upset on the sidelines, as it took away three points from his team right before the half. Regardless, Duke lined up for the 48-yarder, this one missed by Martin, making the score 17-16 in favor of UC going into halftime.
The Bearcats opened the half in much of the same way they ended the first, dominating their opening two drives, adding 10 more points to their lead, making the score 26-17 Cincinnati. Senior George Winn's 46-yard touchdown run gave him 13 for the season and helped balance out the pass heavy offense of the first half. Duke was able to add a 10-yard Conner Vernon touchdown reception to make the score 27-24 in favor of the Bearcats heading into the fourth quarter.
While the first three quarters provided an entertaining game, it was the fourth quarter that made this game into an instant classic. Duke got the scoring going behind a two-yard David Reeves touchdown reception to give Duke their first lead since the first quarter at 31-27. Cincinnati answered almost immediately behind Brendon Kay's third touchdown pass of the evening, a 25-yarder to Chris Moore. Duke then responded with Ross Martin's 52- yard field goal to make the score 34-34 with a little over seven minutes left to play.
While UC's ensuing drive failed, Duke took advantage, driving down the field and setting up a first and goal with 1:30 left to play. However, Duke running back Josh Snead fumbled the ensuing carry, with Cincinnati recovering at their own three-yard line, setting up the Bearcats game-winning drive. Kay got the drive going with an 11-yard rush on first down, getting Cincinnati out of their own end zone. Kay then hit a streaking Travis Kelce for the 83-yard touchdown, giving UC a 41-34 lead with 44 seconds left to play, but allowing Duke one last shot to send the game into over time.
However, the UC defense made sure that shot was short-lived, as senior linebacker Maalik Bomar laid a vicious hit on Duke quarterback Sean Renfree, jarring the bar loose and right into the arms of linebacker Nick Temple, who returned it 55 yards for the touchdown, making the final score 48-34 Cincinnati.
While there were many fantastic performances to talk about, the biggest story of the game involved the coaching job done by Steve Stripling. While Tommy Tuberville is in the fold and ready to go next season, Stripling will be gone next season, heading to Tennessee to become associate head coach under Butch Jones, and had to work with a coaching staff full of first timers, no easy task, especially in preparing for a bowl game. And while Stripling will no longer be the head coach of Cincinnati come tomorrow morning, he gave Bearcat fans a night to remember on December 27th, 2012.