Behind defense, second-half offense, U.Va. gets to 4-1 with win over Duke
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. email@example.com @RTD_MikeBarber
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.
Virginia receiver and formerVarina star DoniDowling somersaults into the end zone for theCavaliers’final touchdown. Hewas penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.