“Really good programs make the plays they need to to win,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said on the Virginia Sports Radio Network.
The Virginia defense did that Saturday in emphatic fashion. The Cavalier D made significant plays throughout the day to make sure the program’s first road win since November 2012 did not slip away.
Playing without injured defensive end Andrew Brown for the entire second half, the UVA defense especially stepped up on the Blue Devils’ final four possessions of the game. The Hoos forced Duke’s offense into 2 turnovers-on-downs, a fumble which Eli Hanback recovered for a touchdown, and an interception on those possessions. That helped secure a 34-20 victory for the Hoos, who are now 2-3 and 1-0 in the ACC heading into a bye week.
Mendenhall said the progress continues on that side of the ball.
“[Richmond] was too much too early. We only did it one game, which we all remember. Richmond doesn’t even feel like this year. It was too much, too soon, and it was completely my fault,” Mendenhall said. “That went away, the plan changed completely for Oregon. After that, we took even more out, and then it’s sequentially being built. I’m still getting to know them. They’re still getting to know me, and I want to get it so everyone can see the progress. This is just the beginning, but it will look consistently like that, as a UVA defense.”
Duke amassed 438 yards – 332 passing and 106 rushing – but couldn’t stay in a consistent rhythm thanks to the play of Virginia’s D, which forced quarterback Daniel Jones to commit 6 turnovers. That included 5 interceptions to match the UVA program record. UVA cornerbacks Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall played outstanding, collecting 2 interceptions apiece, while safety Quin Blanding added a pick as well. Jones, a redshirt freshman, threw 4 first-half interceptions, one more than he had thrown in the previous three games combined.
The Hoos also recovered a fumble and scored a touchdown in the process late in the fourth quarter. The Hoos added 4 tackles for loss (2 sacks) and 7 pass breakups.
“We’ve thrown a lot of the balls in the tackle box and they just stopped rushing certain people and jumped,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “And they’re tall. They’re 6-6, they’re 6-5, long arms and it’s not a bad ploy. Daniel [Jones] is a big tall guy at 6’5″ plus, but there were no throwing lanes. They do a good job. They did it at BYU where they see a lot of throwing in their old conference and they did a good job of jumping. We were trying to use our hands and talking to our offensive linemen about getting their hands down. We didn’t do a good job of attacking them some in the protection portions where you need to attack, not wait, not sit and look at him. Like I said we got out-everythinged. That’s just a portion of it.”
Indeed, Virginia’s defense played well throughout. The play down the stretch during Duke’s final four possessions looked impressive during, obviously, a critical point of the game.
With 10:10 remaining in the game, Duke had just stuffed UVA’s fake punt attempt and had possession at the Virginia 43. Duke managed a first down before junior linebacker Micah Kiser sacked Jones on 4th-and-5. Kiser was his usual productive self, totaling 18 tackles on the day. The sack was his only one of the day, but he was a constant force in the backfield with a pair of quarterback hurries too.
A Kurt Benkert interception set Duke up with great field possession once again on its next drive, which began from the UVA 39. The Cavalier D held its ground once again, forcing a turnover on downs on four straight plays.
Duke’s defense gave its offense yet another chance for a game-tying drive. This time, though, Virginia punter -Nick Conte pinned the Blue Devils at their own 1. On 2nd-and-10, Jones dropped back to pass from his end zone. Scanning to his left Jones didn’t see the blitzing outside linebacker Jordan Mack coming from the right. Mack, a true freshman, obliterated the Duke quarterback with a hit to the chest. Jones fumbled and redshirt freshman defensive end Eli Hanback recovered, giving the Hoos a 2-touchdown cushion with 4:24 left in regulation.
Virginia’s defense took away all of Duke’s hopes the following possession. Two completions moved the ball out to the Duke 47 before Thornhill came up with his second interception of the day, and that was it. The 17-game road losing streak ended and UVA takes a 1-0 ACC record into a bye week.
Mendenhall saw Saturday’s effort as another step forward.
“I’m really proud of our team today in taking another step forward,” Mendenhall said. “I think that you could argue that each game has been a step forward in some regard. We had to do some hard things today. Duke was mounting a comeback. The execution appears to be improving. The culture as we all know was the emphasis to begin and the execution, at some point, would catch up, and it’s starting. We’re not done, but it’s fun to see the players happy. It’s fun to see them see that it’s coming. It’s fun to see them see the plan that’s in place, and it’s fun to see them believe in each other. I like seeing people develop, and it’s happening in front of us all.”