“It was a challenging game, but we knew it would be.”
These words came from Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall following his team’s 28-21 win over Atlantic Coast Conference foe Duke, which entered Scott Stadium on Saturday afternoon with a 4-1 record and looking to rebound from last week’s loss to Miami.
A gritty, sometimes ugly game it was, but for the fourth time in five games this Cavalier squad emerged victorious.
Both defenses were outstanding. Fortunately, the home team’s D played better longer while the offense put enough points on the board to get the win.
“Our team played hard today and they played with resiliency and determination and toughness and grit,” Mendenhall said.
“Today we were able to overcome early adversity and I think that shows what this team is capable of,” Virginia senior quarterback Kurt Benkert said.
UVA’s offense struggled mightily the majority of the first half. Forty-one total yards, two interceptions and two first downs was all it could muster through its first eight possessions. Duke’s offense wasn’t much better, totaling 58 yards of offense and two first downs its first six possessions. Quarterback Daniel Jones also threw two interceptions in that span, one of which Cavalier senior safety Quin Blanding (off of a Bryce Hall deflection) returned 58 yards for a touchdown for the game’s first score.
Duke countered with a defensive score of its own as Jeremy McDuffie intercepted a Kurt Benkert pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 7 late in the first quarter. Duke then grabbed a 14-7 lead with a 15-play, 88-yard drive that resulted in a Jones 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Davis Koppenhaver with 5:21 left in the second quarter.
As it would throughout the game, the Virginia defense was clutch late in the second quarter. Duke took possession with 3:51 remaining until halftime. The Cavalier defense, which had been on the field for nearly seven minutes on Duke’s previous drive, forced a 3-and-out, giving its offense a chance to score before halftime. Virginia didn’t waste the opportunity.
Mixing up the pace – Virginia went no-huddle, something it had not done up until that point – seemingly sparked some rhythm in the offense, and helped by three Duke defensive penalties the Hoos produced a 6-play, 69-yard drive that ended with an Olamide Zaccheaus 11-yard touchdown catch. Virginia had tied the game at 14 heading into the half.
Coming out of the half, the Hoos kept the momentum going. The defense forced four straight Duke punts. Meanwhile, Benkert and wide receiver Doni Dowling hooked up for two touchdowns, giving Virginia a 28-14 advantage with 7:08 remaining in the 4th quarter.
“The second half became who could consistently get a first down, who can capture momentum, who can hold and maintain field position,” Mendenhall said. “And just when I think we’ve done that, then we get the kick return.”
Dowling ended his second score with a somersault into the end zone, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty that pushed back the ensuing Cavalier kickoff. Duke’s Shaun Wilson took Brian Delaney’s kick and raced 76 yards to the Cavalier 12. Three plays later, Blue Devil backup quarterback Quentin Harris ran up the middle for a 4-yard score with 6:14 on the clock.
Duke had two opportunities to tie the game, but Virginia’s defense was up to the challenge. The game effectively ended with 1:08 remaining, when cornerback Juan Thornhill broke up a Jones pass on 4th and 16. A fitting end given the outstanding coverage performance Thornhill, Hall, and the rest of the Cavalier defensive backs turned in all day long.
Jones finished with only 14 completions in 42 attempts for 124 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Virginia’s defense, led in tackles by linebackers Micah Kiser and Jordan Mack (10 apiece), held Duke to just 255 total yards and 5-of-17 on 3rd down conversions. Linebackers Chris Peace and Charles Snowden produced Virginia’s only two sacks of the game. They were important, however, with both coming on Duke’s final offensive drive. Snowden, a true freshman, forced the 4th and 16 with a sack on 3rd and 6.
“We made timely stops, and that’s how we won it,” Kiser said. “We always say we’re going to be a defensive football team. Coach Mendenhall is a defensive coach. Holding an ACC opponent to  yards, that’s awesome.”
Benkert completed 24-of-43 passes for 182 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Running back Jordan Ellis, held to 26 yards rushing in the first half, found more room in the second half and finished with 96 for the game. Zaccheus led the Hoos in receiving catches and yards with 8 receptions for 69 yards and a score.
UVA takes a 4-1 record (the first 4-1 start this program has enjoyed since 2007) and a 1-0 start in ACC play to Chapel Hill next Saturday to face a struggling North Carolina squad.
“We are building resiliency, we are building maturity, we’re building people, but we’re also building a consistent and capable football program and it’s starting to show,” Mendenhall said.
“Great,” Jordan Mack answered when asked how it feels to be 4-1. “It feels great, it’s fantastic, and that’s pretty much it.”