CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Brendon Kay wasn’t sure if he’d get another shot. When he did, he made the most of it.
Duke running back Josh Snead fumbled at the Cincinnati 5 with 1:20 left, and Kay threw an 83-yard touchdown pass to tight end Travis Kelce with 44 seconds to go, lifting the Bearcats to an improbable 48-34 win over the Blue Devils on Thursday night.
Kay threw for 332 yards and his four scoring passes were a Belk Bowl record.
Duke appeared to have the game in hand and was driving for the go-ahead score — and its first bowl victory since 1961 — but the final 80 seconds proved disastrous. With the game tied at 34, Snead fumbled and Bearcats defensive lineman John Williams recovered.
Kay quickly took advantage of the change in momentum, connecting with Kelce down the middle for the go-ahead score. Kelce got behind the Duke defense on a seam route, caught the ball in stride and raced the final 60 yards to the end zone as Blue Devils fans looked on in stunned silence.
Cincinnati (10-3) sealed it on the next series when Maalik Bomar came crashing into Duke quarterback Sean Renfree, forcing a deflection that Nick Temple returned 55 yards for a touchdown.
Renfree threw for 358 yards — another Belk Bowl record — for the Blue Devils (6-7). Conner Vernon, the ACC’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, had 190 catches for 119 yards and a touchdown in his final game for the Blue Devils.
Duke struggled to stop Cincinnati after the first quarter.
The Bearcats piled up 554 total yards of offense, including 130 yards on the ground by George Winn. Duke wasn’t too shabby on offense, either, as the two teams combined for a Belk Bowl-record 1,114 yards.
Kay’s MVP performance comes after a career beset by injuries, but this turned out to be his night to shine.
The Bearcats trailed 16-0 before rattling off 27 straight points to seemingly take control, and the big turning point came from Cincinnati linebacker Greg Blair.
With Duke leading 16-3 and looking for more, Renfree fired a pass over the middle for running back Jela Duncan, who lunged for the goal line but was hit by Blair and fumbled. Blair recovered, and suddenly the Bearcats had a shot.
Cincinnati came to life a short time later when Kay connected on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Anthony McClung, cutting the Duke lead to 16-10. Kay’s second scoring pass, a 41-yard strike to Abernathy, capped a 98-yard drive in the final two minutes of the first half and gave the Bearcats their first lead.
Cincinnati carried the momentum into the second half, scoring on their first two possessions. Tony Miliano connected from 25 yards out and Winn cut back against the grain and raced 46 yards for his 13th touchdown of the season.
But the Blue Devils stormed back to take the lead on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Renfree to Conner Vernon and a 2-yard pass from reserve quarterback Brendon Connette to David Reeves.
The game went back and forth from there before Kelce, who finished with 123 yards receiving, put the Bearcats ahead for good.