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Enter the interim: Duke, Troy seek bowl win for coaching fill-ins

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Unique is a fair description for the Birmingham Bowl matchup of teams linked by their current coaching circumstances.

Interim coaches direct Duke and Troy for Saturday’s game at Birmingham, Ala., and insist their clubs have plenty to play for even if changes at the top are a predominant theme.

“We’re going to prepare like any other game,” Troy quarterback Gunnar Watson said.

Trooper Taylor, Blue Devils running backs coach, was placed in charge at Duke after Mike Elko left for Texas A&M. For Troy, defensive coordinator Greg Gasparato is the interim coach after Jon Sumrall’s departure to Tulane.

Troy (11-2) has a 10-game winning streak with hopes of landing a national ranking to end the 2023 season. Duke (7-5) spent time in the Top 25 before a midseason slump.

“I think does (provide) us a little edge to try to get ranked,” Watson said. “I think it’s a good opportunity.”

Manny Diaz, most recently Penn State’s defensive coordinator and former Miami Hurricanes head coach, is Duke’s head coach for next season.

Gerad Parker, who was Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator this season, was named as the next Troy head coach earlier this week. Parker was a member of Duke’s staff in 2017-18 under coach David Cutcliffe.

But before those men take full control of the respective programs, the teams are attempting to put a bow on the current season. In short, there’s a bowl game to be played.

“Despite the adversity, the turmoil, the locker room stuck together,” Duke quarterback Grayson Loftis said. “Like Coach Troop says, ‘The standard is the standard.’ It doesn’t change.”

Troy has won five straight bowl appearances. Duke has a four-game bowl winning streak.

The Trojans are Sun Belt Conference champions and co-defensive coordinator Tayler Polk will handle defensive play-calling. Troy entered the bowl season sixth nationally in sacks and 15th in total defense.

Watson has thrown for 3,339 yards and 27 touchdowns this year.

“We know we have a challenge and have to step up and prepare like we’re playing a great team,” Duke linebacker Tre Freeman said.

Loftis, a freshman who had been the third-stringer, became Duke’s starting quarterback for the final four games of the regular season after injuries to Riley Leonard and Henry Belin IV. The Blue Devils went 2-2 in those games.

Senior receiver Jalon Calhoun of Duke will try to add to his lofty receiving totals. He eclipsed 3,000 career yards in the regular-season finale vs. Pitt.

“It just speaks volumes about my hard work,” Calhoun said. “My teammates really helped me in pushing me every day, so I really appreciate that.”

Duke entered the bowl season ranked 14th nationally in red-zone defense. However, defensive tackle Aeneas Peebles, an All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection who had a team-leading 8.5 sacks, and defensive end RJ Oben entered the transfer portal and won’t play in the bowl. On offense, running back Jordan Waters also has left the Blue Devils.

This is the first time a Sun Belt Conference team will face a team from a Power 5 conference in a bowl.

“That’s going to be exciting,” Watson said. “Like everybody has been saying, it’s a chance for us to showcase our football program.

Taylor spent 2009-12 on Auburn’s staff along with earlier stints at Southeastern Conference member Tennessee.

“I am very familiar with the City of Birmingham, so I know our players and fans will have a great experience,” Taylor said.

Duke won the only two previous meetings with Troy. This time, the Trojans are hoping for a home state boost.

“Being in Birmingham and in the state of Alabama, I think Troy fans will really show up and show out,” Watson said.

–Field Level Media

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