Saturday’s eventful 7-game slate kicked off in Birmingham, AL in the first-ever ACC vs. Sun Belt bowl matchup.
It seemed like nothing could stop the Troy Trojans, which toted a 10-game win streak heading into the matchup — winning eight of those contests by at least 18 points. Troy was fresh off its second consecutive Sun Belt championship where it throttled Appalachian State 49-23, and with a victory in the Birmingham Bowl, the Trojans would likely seal their second-straight season finishing ranked in the AP Poll.
However, the dream finish to a stellar 2023 campaign was derailed. Troy entered without Jon Sumrall, who recently accepted the Tulane head coaching job. Duke similarly entered without Mike Elko, who darted to Texas A&M in November. But in the battle of gritty defenses led by interim coaches, the Blue Devils emerged on top, edging Troy in a 17-10 rock fight.
With the victory in Birmingham, Duke won its fifth consecutive bowl game dating back to 2015, posting a 5-0 bowl record in the last nine seasons after winning zero bowls from 1961 to 2014. Conversely, it was Troy’s first bowl loss since 2009 as the Trojans carried a 5-game bowl winning streak into Saturday’s matchup.
Points were sparse, but Duke initiated the scoring effort in the late first quarter with Jaylen Coleman’s first rushing touchdown of the season. Interim head coach Trooper Taylor decided to set the tone after the opening score, topping the touchdown with a successful two-point conversion. Duke remained in control throughout the first half, entering the break with a 14-0 late courtesy of two second quarter Todd Pelino field goals.
Duke continued to assert itself defensively through the second half, and Troy never entered the end zone until the 5:54 mark of the fourth quarter. The Trojans’ only touchdown was certainly a memorable one, as left tackle Derrick Graham caught a pass in the flats and powered into paydirt for a 2-yard score.
Trailing 17-10, Troy received two opportunities for a shot at a tie, or potentially, a victory. However, the first Trojans possession concluded in a punt at midfield. In their last ditch effort with under 90 seconds remaining, quarterback Gunnar Watson threw an interception to Duke free safety Jeremiah Lewis to ice the game.
It was Troy’s only turnover of the day, but Duke’s defense found other ways to prevent the Sun Belt champions from piling up the points. The Blue Devils registered a turnover on downs on all three Troy fourth down attempts, and they recorded 10 third down stops on Troy’s 12 tries. The Trojans missed an early field goal as well, failing to capitalize after Duke fumbled on its second play from scrimmage.
In a game controlled by the defenses, the MVP went to Duke cornerback Chandler Rivers, who generated five tackles, two tackles for loss, and three pass breakups in the low-scoring bout.
While the Blue Devils were without their head coach and star quarterback Riley Leonard, who transferred to Notre Dame, several transfer portal entrants played for Duke and made a massive impact in Birmingham. Among those were strong safety Jaylen Stinson who ranked second on the unit in tackles and running back Jordan Waters who accumulated 66 rushing yards on 11 attempts.
Both teams enter new eras after this bowl game, as Troy moves forward under head coach Gerad Parker while Duke launches the Manny Diaz era.
Troy officially finishes 2023 at 11-3 and Duke wraps up the year at 8-5.