BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – A day before the Birmingham Bowl, Duke interim coach Trooper Taylor loaded his team on buses for a crack-of-dawn trip to Selma, Alabama. While most coaches ensure their team gets rest the day before a game, Taylor wanted his to retrace historic footsteps.
A day later, Duke capped its visit with a 17-10 Birmingham Bowl victory against Sun Belt Conference champion Troy. The Blue Devils (8-5) built a 17-3 lead but needed one final stop late in the game to preserve victory.
“I wasn’t going to miss something they might never have the opportunity to do again,” explained Taylor of the site of “Bloody Sunday,” a key date in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis threw for 183 yards and cornerback Chandler Rivers earned the Fred Sington MVP trophy as Duke capped a roller coaster season that included the loss of starting quarterback Riley Leonard to injury (later transferring to Notre Dame), a lineup decimated by transfer portal departures and head coach Mike Elko taking a new job at Texas A&M.
Meanwhile, Troy (11-3) tried to finish the season on an 11-game winning streak for the second straight year. But against Duke’s stingy defense, the Trojans couldn’t find an offensive rhythm.
A lack of syncopation wasn’t unexpected. Both teams played with interim coaches: Taylor subbing for Elko while Troy defensive coordinator Greg Gasparato stepped up when Jon Sumrall took a job at Tulane.
Both programs have already hired replacements – former Miami coach Manny Diaz takes over at Duke and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Gerad Parker is the new hire at Troy.
“When you win, things change,” Gasparato said. “What matters is how you react. And what matters here is that the ship has been righted.”
Since taking over for the injured Leonard, Loftis has been effective without much to show for the understudy work. In four starts, he delivered victories against Wake Forest and Pitt in between narrow losses to North Carolina and Virginia.
Against Troy, Duke surged to a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter lead and looked to put the game out of reach. But Troy intercepted Loftis deep in Trojans territory then replied with an 87-yard drive to cut the margin to one score.
Duke would need one final stop to secure victory and got it when Jeremiah Lewis intercepted Gunnar Watson with just over a minute remaining in the game. A senior, Watson finished the game with 230 yards passing despite missing multiple pre-bowl practices with the flu.
Fittingly, the MVP honors went to a defender. Rivers, a sophomore cornerback, finished with five tackles, three pass breakups and one quarterback hurry. But Duke’s most impressive work was in limiting big-play opportunities to running back Kimani Vidal, a third-team All-America selection who was limited to 79 yards on 17 carries.
Running back Jaylen Coleman, who scored the game’s first touchdown, credited Taylor with having the Blue Devils ready.
“Trooper Taylor has been my coach for the last two years,” Coleman said. “He always keeps us up. Always has high energy. Always has us ready to play.”