Doni Dowling admitted he felt worried. With the Virginia football team clinging to a touchdown lead in the final five minutes, the senior receiver knew the game remained on the line, in part, due to an impulsive celebration play he made earlier in the quarter.
Fortunately for Dowling, that stress turned into relief and joy when the Cavaliers sealed the deal against Duke. The defense held up after the Blue Devils drove to the UVA 30-yard line in the final two minutes and the Hoos closed it out in victory formation with a 28-21 win at Scott Stadium.
”It went from a little anxiety to a lot of anxiety. I felt guilty for the score being so close,” Dowling said. ”But once we got in that victory formation to take a knee, I was overcame by emotions. I’m just proud to be on this team. On and off the field, we’re close. Everyone has each other’s back. They definitely had my back when I did something selfish – they’re still there for me and we came out with the win. I was crying and everything. It’s really powerful just how this team is this year and just how close we really are and how much we believe in how hard we work.”
Dowling jumped – or should that say flipped? – on to that emotional roller coaster midway through the fourth quarter. With the Hoos ahead 21-14, he came through with several clutch catches on what became a touchdown drive. First, he snared a tough reception on a slant pattern to extend the drive on 3rd-and-2. He followed that up with a deep in route to move the chains on 3rd-and-9. Both of those plays came before the team crossed midfield.
Then came the moment that really dialed up Dowling’s anxiety. On 3rd-and-3 deep in Duke territory, the play broke down as the Devils pressured Kurt Benkert in the pocket. Benkert scrambled to his left, signaled for Dowling to change directions, and then fired a sideline pass in his direction. The Richmond native made the catch while losing his defender and sprinted toward the hill for a 17-yard touchdown.
Just as he reached the goal line, however, Dowling somersaulted through the air and rolled back to his feet untouched in the end zone. A penalty flag followed and what grew to a 28-14 lead, suddenly dropped back to a one-score game when the ensuing kickoff return covered 76 yards to set up a quick Duke touchdown.
Dowling asked to speak to the team after the game to express his gratitude to the team for having his back.
”I’m kind of an impulsive person,” Dowling said. ”I didn’t think about doing that [somersault] before. I never told no one I was going to do it. I kind of live on the edge and sometimes I fall off.”
Benkert and others on the team actually liked the flip since it didn’t cost the team in the victory column.
”The somersault hurt us, but he plays with so much emotion and passion that I kind of liked it,” Benkert said. ”I know it hurt our team with the penalty, but seeing someone that cares that much – I mean that’s who he is and he’s going to give everything he has every single time.”
The tuck-and-roll touchdown overshadowed a strong day for Dowling. He made five catches for 52 yards with two touchdowns. Four of the five receptions either kept drives alive on third down or went for touchdowns.
That included the go-ahead score early in the second half when his five-yard catch put UVA ahead for good at 21-14. On that play, Dowling ran a three-receiver combination route that saw him sit down right at the goal line for the catch. The officials signaled that the play came up short of the goal line, but a review overturned the call and made it a touchdown.
”I wasn’t sure that I scored honestly,” Dowling said. ”I just left it to the refs. It was big. It was good to see that the whole crowd had their hands up like touchdown when it was on HooVision. I just played the play and it came out in my favor and we went up on that one.”
Adjustments Help Settle Offense
Dowling’s first touchdown catch capped a 10-play, 79-yard drive that put UVA ahead with 10:30 to go in the third quarter. It also marked the fourth time in five games this season that Virginia’s offense scored on its first possession of the second half. That touchdown and one right before the half – an 11-yarder to Olamide Zaccheaus – turned the momentum in the game as the Hoos flipped a 14-7 deficit into a 21-14 lead.
Those two drives highlighted some adjustments for the Cavalier offense. The combination of changes included a selectively increased tempo and some formation moves. The half-ending drive began with 3:04 on the clock so UVA naturally picked up its pace on that drive, but the offense stuck with it early in the second half too. That included a few no-huddle plays, but also just getting into and out of the huddle more urgently.
”We started picking up the pace,” Benkert said. ”We went a little bit no huddle and were mixing things up, just a little bit different play-calling than we expected going into it. They didn’t do the same things we had seen on film the whole time so we adjusted and credit to the coaches.”
Virginia also switched up its sets and protections. Early in the game, the Hoos used a lot of two tight end looks (with Tanner Cowley motioning in from a receiver slot frequently) or two running back looks that are common within this system. Later, including on the touchdown drives that bridged the halves, they spread things out more with multiple receivers and single back sets.
That formation adjustment helped the offensive line and Benkert identify the likely blitzers more readily.
”We identified known blitzers and that helped a lot,” UVA tackle Brandon Pertile said. ”In the pass game, when you saw a guy up on the line, you knew he was going to come with no coverage responsibilities.”
Finally, one important key was an adjustment that didn’t happen. The Cavaliers stuck with the running game. Duke bottled up the rushing attack for much of the day, but Virginia stuck with it to eventually end up with 128 yards on 38 carries. That 3.4 yards per carry isn’t earth-shattering, obviously, but it did help keep the offense in better down-and-distance situations by keeping the Blue Devils honest.
By the end of the game, running back Jordan Ellis battled his way to 96 yards on 25 carries. And he fought for yards on all of them.
”When you see him fighting, it makes us fight,” Pertile said. ”It’s all a domino effect. It’s all about who’s going to do it first. One guy does it first and everybody hops on board the train. Then we pound the ball.”
Seeing Is Believing
During preseason practice, Pertile, an Oklahoma State graduate transfer, told teammates and reporters that what he saw on the field didn’t look like 2-10 talent. The Cavaliers, of course, finished with that humbling record in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season.
So far, Pertile has proven prophetic. The Cavaliers have opened the season with a 4-1 record, the best start since the 2007 season. They’ve also clicked off three straight wins for the first time since the 2011 season. Both of those years ended up with bowl trips.
”I’m ecstatic,” Pertile said. ”I don’t know if you witnessed it, after the game I’m out there dancing on the field. There’s nothing more rewarding than that. I’m just glad it’s showing, what I saw and what we know inside our building, it’s showing and it’s time for America to see that.”
The Hoos entered Saturday’s game with only one turnover in the first four games, which left them No. 2 nationally behind only Alabama. They tallied two turnovers before the end of the first quarter against Duke, though. Benkert tossed two interceptions in the opening frame, including a pick-6 with 1:15 to go when Jeremy McDuffie broke in front of a pattern and then took the ball 42 yards to the house.
Benkert, however, said he shook that rough start off.
“It’s definitely easier this year than it was last year,” Benkert said. “Just being more mature and growing has helped a lot. We had a lot of game left to play, and the game was still pretty close at that point so I had to keep going.”