Duke grinds out bowl win

Duke’s final football game of the 2023 season won’t be remembered as dominant or electric.

What it was, though, was a grind-it-out performance that led to the Blue Devils’ 17-10 win over Troy in the Birmingham Bowl on Saturday at Protective Stadium.

The Blue Devils (8-5) won their fifth straight bowl game, and it’s only the second instance in program history of winning bowl games in back-to-back seasons.

Duke and Troy (11-3) had the same number of total yards (330) and first downs (19). Duke lost the turnover margin 2-1, but its one takeaway was the most important — that was Jeremiah Lewis picking off an overthrown pass in the middle to effectively end the game.

There was some cosmic energy to that one, given Duke’s first defensive possession of the season ended with Lewis dropping an interception over the middle off the hand of Clemson’s Cade Klubnik.

With the teams identical in yards and first downs, Duke’s edge was where you’d expect; Troy was 2-for-12 on third downs and 0-for-3 on fourth downs.

Troy had one sustained drive — 10 plays for 87 yards — that featured a throwback pass to an offensive lineman for the touchdown. It came after freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis’ only mistake, an interception about halfway through the fourth quarter when the Blue Devils had a two-touchdown lead.

Duke’s defense was led by Birmingham Bowl MVP Chandler Rivers, who had five tackles, two TFLs, three passes broken-up and a QB hurry. Linebacker Tre Freeman led Duke with nine tackles, giving him 106 this season and making him the first Blue Devil with triple-digit tackles since Koby Quansah in 2019.

Troy running back Kimani Vidal had 79 yards on 17 carries, with a long of 12. He entered the game second in the country in rushing yards.

Duke lost the shutout bid with 1:36 left in the third quarter when Troy got a field goal. Duke answered with a 47-yard drive that ended with Todd Pelino’s third field goal of the game, from 45 yards.

Jaylen Coleman scored the first points of the game, punching in a 1-yard run after a 26-yard catch by Jalon Calhoun. It was Coleman’s first touchdown of the season, a nice sendoff for the sixth-year running back.

Pelino added two field goals in the first half for a 14-0 lead — Duke scored on a creative two-point conversion that featured a direct and diagonal snap to tight end Nicky Dalmolin after Coleman’s touchdown. Pelino’s first-half field goals were from 34 and 37 yards.

Loftis was 19 of 29 for 183 yards. While his interception was a low point, he was effective in the short-to-intermediate passing game.

Jaquez Moore (14 carries for 73 yards) and Jordan Waters (11 for 66) combined for 139 rushing yards. Sahmir Hagans was Duke’s leading receiver with five catches for 55 yards, both of those being season highs for him.

Calhoun had two catches, giving him 253 in his five-year Duke career. That’s tied with T.J. Rahming for the third-most in program history.

Duke turned the ball over the first time its offense was on the field, with Loftis stripped from behind. Troy appeared to turn that into a touchdown a few plays later on a 16-yard run by Vidal, but that was nullified by a holding penalty.

Troy went farther backward after the penalty when Aeneas Peebles — one of several Blue Devils who’s transferring but played in the bowl game — notched a third-down sack. Troy’s Scott Taylor Renfroe missed a 47-yard field goal, the closest the Trojans came to scoring in the first half.

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