The Virginia football team waited years for this win.
When the clock ran out on UVA’s 34-20 victory at Duke on Saturday, a long list of streaks expired as well. The Hoos last claimed victory at Duke in 2006. The Cavaliers snapped a 17-game road losing streak that dated back nearly four years to November 3, 2012. They had not triumphed in back-to-back games in two years, a pair of 2014 wins against Kent State and Pittsburgh.
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said he did not pay much attention to the streak and focused on the task for this week’s game in Durham.
“I didn’t hear about it much. I didn’t know how many games, but really chose, right from the beginning, to not acknowledge it,” Mendenhall said. “That just makes it bigger. We believe that preparation is preparation, home or away. That was the message. If you do that, it doesn’t matter where you play, because the preparation will hold. That was the message to the team from the very beginning. I certainly feel that they felt it was a bigger thing than I did, because they have been a part of it, and I haven’t. I think that’s an advantage that they’ve been a part of it and I haven’t. To us, it wasn’t some insurmountable thing, and I think that helped bridge the gap.”
Indeed, it proved to be an exciting win for the players.
”I’ve never had this feeling on an opponent’s field since I’ve been here,” Wahoo nose tackle Donte Wilkins said on the Virginia Sports Radio Network. ”This is my first one and it’s a feeling that I want again. None of us are satisfied.”
Saturday’s win at Duke took timely plays from all three phases to come out on top. Virginia’s defense forced 6 turnovers, the most since the Richmond game in 2014, and matched the program record with 5 interceptions. Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall made a pair of picks each, while Blanding added his first of the season as well.
The D also made two critical fourth down stops in the fourth quarter when Duke had rallied to within 27-20 with the ball on UVA’s half of the field. Micah Kiser stopped the first fourth down attempt late with a sack on fourth down, while Mark Hall knocked down a pass at the line to end the other threat on fourth down. Kiser had a monster game with 18 tackles, including 2 tackles for loss, 2 pass breakups, and 2 quarterback hurries. The defense as a whole knocked down 7 passes. The 12 passes defended (7 PBU, 5 INT) accounted for 12 of the 21 incompletions for Devil quarterback Daniel Jones, who finished with 324 yards on 33-of-54 passing.
Special teams set up one more dagger play from the defense with a punt. For the second time in the game, senior Nick Conte pinned a punt at the 1-yard line to leave the Blue Devils in a deep hole. Conte averaged 48.0 yards per punt and never really left Duke in a good spot on the possession exchanges.
Capitalizing on that field position, the UVA defense capped off the scoring with a huge sack and forced fumble. True freshman linebacker Jordan Mack blitzed into the end zone, put his head in Jones’ chest, and leveled the quarterback. The ball popped free and turned into a Cavalier touchdown when Eli Hanback fell on the ball.
Gotta keep your head on a swivel. 👀 https://t.co/OYB4Rkh7qD
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 1, 2016
”That’s J-Mack – we expect that from him,” Wilkins said on the Virginia Sports Radio Network. ”He’s no freshman. He’s no rookie. He’s no first year. He’s Jordan Mack. He came here to play and that’s what he’s doing. He’s putting on a show. … I was in when Jordan Mack hit that dude and he hit him and I was like ‘ooo’ ‘ooo’ – he rocked him. That’s what we expect from him. He just flies around.”
That late play backed up a solid showing, particularly in the first half, from the offense. The Cavaliers turned three red zone trips into touchdowns and extended numerous plays for big gains in the passing game. Albert Reid (1-yard run), Olamide Zaccheaus (12-yard catch), and Richard Burney (3-yard catch) finished off the drives in the red zone.
Quarterback Kurt Benkert engineered those scoring drives in the passing game for the most part. The Blue Devils clamped down on the running game, holding UVA to 80 yards rushing and 2.2 yards per carry. Taquan Mizell led the category with 60 yards on 14 carries. Those struggles on the ground could have spelled trouble because Duke entered the game tied for the national lead with 17 sacks.
Benkert rose to the challenge, though. He completed 23 of 41 passes for 336 yards and 3 touchdowns. That matched Michael Rocco’s feat as the last QB to throw for 300 or more yards in consecutive games (2011 Chik-fil-A Bowl and 2012 season opener against Richmond). Benkert set a school record last week against Central Michigan with 421 passing yards. He produced 757 yards and 8 touchdown passes in these two wins.
For the game, 11 different players caught a pass. Eldridge scored his first career touchdown and set a career-high with 112 receiving yards. Keeon Johnson led the way with 5 catches for 46 yards, while Zaccheaus added 4 for 42 yards. Mizzell became No. 2 all-time at UVA in receptions with 3 catches for 7 yards.
Until a poorly thrown interception late, Benkert managed the Duke game well and kept plays alive. Throughout the game – and especially in the first half – he avoided losses in the pocket and then made big completions down the field. Those type of completions included a 28-yard touchdown and an 84-yard rainbow down the middle of the field to David Eldridge to set up another score. The latter marked only the second time in program history that UVA completed 80+ yard passes in back-to-back games (1983).
”Kurt is showing a lot of confidence when he’s throwing the ball,” Reid said on the Virginia Sports Radio Network. ”He puts the ball where it’s supposed to be and I just feel like he’s going to continue to get better as the year goes on.”
After an 0-3 start and a stunning 37-20 loss to Richmond in the opener, the Hoos are happy to head into their bye week with some momentum. Virginia plays three straight home games to close out October.
”We want a quality football program,” Mendenhall said on the Virginia Sports Radio Network. ”We want a consistent winner. We want a competitive team no matter who we play or where we play them. That’s what we’re working toward. I think that UVA fans have a lot to be proud of today with their team and the support was awesome. I hope they’re seeing and feeling this movement just beginning that ‘hey wait a second, this might be worth watching and supporting.’”