Troy drops heartbreaker to Duke in Birmingham Bowl

Published 2:41 pm Saturday, December 23, 2023

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December was a rollercoaster ride of a month for the Troy Trojans and that continued in the Birmingham Bowl as the Duke Blue Devils bested Troy by a score of 17-10.

While it was a frustrating finish to another fantastic football season for the Trojans, Troy came into the contest behind the eight ball after a number of players were stricken with an illness that spread through the team during the week. Despite this, all of Troy’s expected starters still started and played the majority of the game, even though many needed IV fluids ahead of it.

The Trojans earned the first big play of the game when defensive end TJ Jackson sacked Duke quarterback Grayson Loftis and forced a fumble, which Dell Pettus recovered. A few plays later running back Kimani Vidal scored on a 16-yard touchdown run, but a holding penalty wiped it out. Troy’s 47-yard field goal a few plays later was no good.

Both defenses stood tall for much of the rest of the first quarter until Duke’s offense got rolling late in the period. After a 24-yard pass set the Blue Devils up at the Troy 1-yard line, Duke running back Jaylen Coleman scored on a 1-yard run with 2:29 left to give Duke a 8-0 lead after a two-point conversion.

Duke added to its lead with a 34-yard field goal with 6:51 left in the second quarter to go up 11-0. Another Troy penalty put Duke deep in Trojan territory. Both Troy and Duke traded turnover-on-downs in the other’s territory until Duke reeled off a 17-play drive that chewed up more than six minutes of game time. The Blue Devils capped it off with a 36-yard field goal as time expired in the half to put Duke ahead of Troy 14-0 at halftime.

The Trojans were flagged a costly five times for 58 yards in the first half and quarterback Gunnar Watson was sacked twice and pressured numerous times. Troy managed just 106 yards of total offense, compared to Duke’s 208 in the first half, as well.

The Troy offense got going in the second half but turned the ball over on downs twice in Duke territory. The Trojans finally broke their scoreless streak when ST Renfroe booted a 44-yard field goal with 1:36 left in the third quarter to cut the Duke lead to 14-3.

Duke responded right back with a 45-yard field goal to extend the lead to 17-3 with 13:29 left in the game. Troy then turned the ball over on downs near midfield but Trojan defensive back Damaje Yancey intercepted a Loftis pass deep in Troy territory.

The Troy offense was sparked by that play and marched on a 10-play, 87-yard drive that was copped off with some trickery. Watson threw a backyards pass to a wide-open offensive lineman Derrick Grantham, who then ran in for a 3-yard touchdown run to cut Duke’s lead to 17-10 with 5:54 left in the game.

The Troy defense managed to force a Duke punt with just under two minutes remaining but Watson was intercepted at midfield to seal the Blue Devil win.

Duke and Troy both managed 330 yards of total offense in the tight contest. Both were also penalized five times for 58 yards. Troy forced two turnovers and Duke forced one.

Watson completed 21-of-35 passes for 230 yards and an interception. Kimani Vidal rushed for 79 yards on 17 carries and surpassed 4,000 career yards. Jabre Barber caught 10 passes fro 107 yards and Peyton Higgins caught four passes for 63 yards.

Jordan Stringer led the Troy defense with eight tackles, while O’shai Fletcher earned seven tackles and Richard Jibunor had six tackles, two tackles-for-loss and a sack. Jackson also tallied three tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack and a forced fumble.

Duke kicker Todd Pelino earned game MVP honors as he converted all three of his field goal attempts.