Mes­sage de­liv­ered

Be­hind de­fense, sec­ond-half of­fense, U.Va. gets to 4-1 with win over Duke

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - SPORTS - BY MIKE BAR­BER

CHAR­LOTTESVILLE— For the first time since Hal­loween 2015, Vir­ginia won a game de­cided by 7 points or fewer.

And with the vic­tory, the Cavs dou­bled their win to­tal from a sea­son ago.

Se­nior safety Quin Bland­ing re­turned an in­ter­cep­tion for a touch­down, and se­nior quar­ter­back Kurt Benkert, on what started out as a shaky af­ter­noon, threw three scor- ing passes to help off­set his two in­ter­cep­tions as U. Va. beat Duke 28- 21.

“We usu­ally don’t win these games,” said se­nior line­backer Micah Kiser, who fin­ished with 10 tack­les. “This was a de­fen­sive bat­tle all the way for both teams. Our of­fense made timely plays, we made timely stops, and that’s how we want it.”

Be­fore Satur­day, Vir­ginia ( 4- 1, 1- 0 ACC) was just 6- 12 in games de­cided by a touch­down or less the past five years, U.Va. QB Kurt Benkert threw three TD passes af­ter start­ing with two in­ter­cep­tions.

in­clud­ing 0- 3 in those games last sea­son.

“I think we’ve ma­tured as a team,” sopho­more wide re­ceiver Joe Reed said. “We don’t fold. We’ve got each other’s back.”

The last nar­row win like that came Oct. 31, 2015, against Ge­or­gia Tech. But Satur­day, de­spite of­fen­sive strug­gles in the first half and an ill- timed cel­e­bra­tion penalty in the fourth quar­ter, the Cava­liers found a way to come out on top in a tight con­test, beat­ing Duke ( 4- 2, 1- 2) for the third straight sea­son.

“Noth­ing’s easy, but that’s where our pro­gram is, and that’s what we’re bat­tling through,” said U. Va. sec­ond- year coach Bronco Men­den­hall. “We are build­ing re­siliency, we’re build­ing ma­tu­rity, we’re build­ing peo­ple, but we’re also build­ing a con­sis­tent and ca­pa­ble foot­ball pro­gram. It’s start­ing to show.”

Af­ter go­ing 1 for 7 on third down in the first half, Men­den­hall’s group con­verted 7 of 11 af­ter the break. And, against the ACC’s top rush­ing de­fense, U. Va. gained 128 yards on 38 car­ries, with 96 from ju­nior tail­back Jor­dan El­lis.

A year af­ter throw­ing five in­ter­cep­tions and los­ing a key fum­ble against the Cava­liers, Duke sopho­more quar­ter­back Daniel Jones had an­other aw­ful game. He fin­ished 14 for 42 for 124 yards with a touch­down pass and two more in­ter­cep­tions, one that Bland­ing ran back 58 yards for the game’s first touch­down.

“We are out of sync — not just him— across the board,” Duke coach David Cut­cliffe said. “And when the con­fi­dence goes, the abil­ity of the team to be in sync is go­ing to be one of the first things to go.”

Benkert had sim­i­lar strug­gles, es­pe­cially early on. He went just 9 for 17 for 56 yards with two in­ter­cep­tions in the first half. With 1: 15 left in the first quar­ter, Benkert avoided the pass rush and tried to force a throw to Daniel Hamm into the flat.

Duke’s Jeremy McDuffie un­der­cut the route, picked the ball off and re­turned it 42 yards for a game- ty­ing touch­down, mak­ing it 7- 7.

Both of­fenses fi­nally put up points of their own late in the first half.

Duke put to­gether a 15play, 88- yard drive — more than twice the to­tal yards it had mus­tered to that point— and took a 14- 7 lead when Jones hit Davis Kop­pen­haver in traf­fic for a 7- yard touch­down with 5: 21 left in the half.

But Vir­ginia re­sponded when Olamide Zac­cheaus caught a pass in the flat and sprinted 11 yards to the end zone to tie the game 14- 14 with 45 sec­onds left in the half.

In the sec­ond half, with Benkert help­ing the of­fense go with a pair of key scram­bles, U. Va. went 79 yards in 10 plays and took the lead when Benkert hit se­nior wide re­ceiver Doni Dowl­ing with a 5- yard touch­down pass. That put the Cava­liers up 21- 14 with 10: 30 left in the third quar­ter.

U. Va. seized con­trol of the game mid­way through the fourth quar­ter, when Dowl­ing— a for­mer Va­rina star — caught a short pass from Benkert, made a de­fender miss and raced 17 yards for a touch­down, putting the Cava­liers in front 28- 14 with 7: 08 to play.

But Dowl­ing was hit with a 15- yard per­sonal foul penalty for som­er­sault­ing into the end zone af­ter his score. Those yards were en­forced on the en­su­ing kickoff, which Duke’s Shaun Wil­son brought back 76 yards to the Vir­ginia 12- yard line, set­ting up a 4- yard touch­down run by backup quar­ter­back Quentin Har­ris.

“It went from a lit­tle anx­i­ety to a lot of anx­i­ety,” Dowl­ing said. “I felt guilty with the score be­ing so close.”

It was the de­fense that got things started for Vir­ginia and— with the game on the line — the Cava­liers asked that unit to fin­ish things off. Down a touch­down, Duke had two pos­ses­sions in the fi­nal 5: 13 of the game.

U. Va. forced a three- and­out on the first, then held off the Blue Devils one fi­nal time. Fresh­man line­backer Charles Snow­den got a sack on third down, and Jones’ fourth- down throw fell harm­lessly in­com­plete to give the Cava­liers their third straight win and their first 4- 1 start since 2007.

Dowl­ing, who fin­ished with five catches for 52 yards, said he apol­o­gized to team­mates af­ter the game in the locker room for his “self­ish” play.

“I hope that’s a mes­sage to the ACC that we’re here, though,” Dowl­ing said. mbar­ber@times­dis­patch.com @RTD_MikeBar­ber

MARK GORMUS/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Vir­ginia safety Quin Bland­ing es­capes the grasp of Duke’s Gabe Brand­ner as he scores a touch­down against the Blue Devils in the first half.

MARK GORMUS/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Vir­ginia re­ceiver and for­merVa­rina star DoniDowl­ing som­er­saults into the end zone for theCava­liers’fi­nal touch­down. Hewas pe­nal­ized for un­sports­man­like con­duct.

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