It took less than three minutes for Quin Blanding and the defense to set the tone in the Virginia football team’s 28-21 win against Duke on Saturday. On just the third snap of the game for the Blue Devils, Blanding pulled down a deflected pass and took it 58 yards for a touchdown.
It took even less time for Blanding to think touchdown on the play.
“As soon as I caught it. I knew I was going to score as soon as I caught the ball,” Blanding said. “That’s my mindset now. When I catch the ball, I score.”
While Blanding cashed in on the pick-6, he had some help on the play. Chris Peace and Steven Wright pressured the pass. Bryce Hall closed quickly on Duke’s intended target T.J. Rahming and that sent the ball flying into the air. Blanding, of course, snared the tip drill interception and headed for the end zone.
With Blue Devil quarterback Daniel Jones now in pursuit, Blanding picked up one final block from Jordan Mack to ensure that he made it in for the touchdown. It was Blanding’s first pick of the season and the seventh of his career.
”I took off,” Blanding said. ”I knew the quarterback had a good angle on me because I would’ve took the same angle he took. I saw it so I started kind of slowing down and I know J-Mack is a really fast guy as well … I just took a little step back and let him do what he gotta do and I scored.”
That scoring play to open the day proved to be a sign of things to come on a day controlled by the defenses. Virginia’s group allowed only one significant scoring drive in the game (a 15-play 88-yard touchdown march in the second quarter; Duke’s other two scores came on a pick-6 of its own and a 3-play 12-yard set up by a kick return) and held the visitors to just 255 yards overall.
The Blue Devils averaged just 3.4 yards per play on the day with 131 yards rushing and 124 yards passing. Jones finished 14-of-42 passing with two interceptions, giving him seven picks in two games against UVA in 2016 and 2017. Virginia forced Duke to punt 10 times.
The Cavaliers added two sacks late to prevent any comeback hopes as well.
”That’s what our new standard is,” Blanding said. ”You see it. We’re comfortable and we just have fun. We just make plays.”
The defense’s big day helped Virginia reach 4-1 for the first time since 2007. The Hoos have won three straight games for the first time since 2011.
“That’s the main reason I came back,” Blanding said. “I trust the process, and we’re just going to keep building from here. It’s amazing to see it work. We’ve been trusting it since last year.”
Virginia receiver Olamide Zaccheaus took a pass from 11 yards out and turned it into a touchdown against Duke. That kept an interesting streak going – he’s scored a touchdown in every Bronco Mendenhall win to date at UVA. The list: 15-, 82-yard catches vs. Central Michigan, 12-yard catch vs. Duke (2016), 17-yard catch vs. W&M, 30-yard catch vs. UConn, 56-yard run vs. Boise State, 11-yard catch vs. Duke (2017).
Against the Blue Devils, Zaccheaus slipped out to the flats as part of paired patterns near the end zone. When the defense went with the deeper route in the end zone, quarterback Kurt Benkert fired the ball out to Zaccheaus and he took it to the house. The Zaccheaus ‘did the rest’ part is par for the course according to Benkert.
”I would say 95% of the time he’s making the right decision, which is huge,” Benkert said. ”I mean that’s really hard to do for an entire game. So knowing that more often than not he’s going to be in the right spot and find a way to get open is everything.”
Beyond the fun touchdowns in wins stat, Zaccheaus has posted some other note-worthy numbers of late. He joined the 1,000-yard club in the win against UConn and has now climbed into 26th place all-time in program history with, 1,148 receiving yards. He also has 110 career catches to rank No. 10 all-time at UVA (he passed Canaan Severin, Tyrone Davis, Bruce McGonnigal, Kevin Parks, Terry Kirby, and Patrick Jeffers on that list Saturday). He’s made at least one reception in 21 straight games.
Against Duke, Zaccheaus hauled in eight catches for 69 yards. As for the touchdown catch that kept the streak going, he wasn’t the planned target on the play.
“It wasn’t supposed to go to me, but it worked out that way,” Zaccheaus said. “It was a lane and I took advantage of it.”
Third Down Key
Entering the game, both teams sported impressive defensive numbers on third down so that figured to be a key statistic in determining the outcome. The Blue Devils ranked No. 2 nationally in third down defense by allowing just a 17.74% conversion rate, while the Cavaliers ranked No. 9 nationally at 25.93% allowed.
In the end, UVA fared better in this key category. The Hoos finished 8 of 18 on third down for a decent 44.4%, a number well above the Blue Devils’ season average. Duke finished 5 of 17 on third down for 29.4% in the game.
The Cavaliers really took control of things in the second half thanks to their play on third down. After going 1-7 in the first half, they converted 7 of 11 after intermission. That included converting four times (three drive-extenders and the scoring play) on a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that produced a 28-14 lead.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, converted 5 of 11 third downs in the first half, but went 0-6 in the second half. In fact, other than a second quarter touchdown drive where its offense converted four times (three drive-extenders and the scoring play), Duke moved the chains only one other time on third down. One other touchdown drive for the Devils continued after a third down penalty against UVA negated a play.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe mentioned third down play in the second half as a big factor in the outcome.
“The most disappointing thing is that we got whooped so badly in the second half as a team,” Cutcliffe said. “I know, as I said, the score did not dictate that, but on third downs, they are 7 for 11, and we are oh-for. They certainly ran the ball better, and we did not – at all. There are a lot of issues that we need to address.”
The Last Word
The Virginia football team is 4-1 for the first time since 2007, but it doesn’t seem like linebacker Micah Kiser is going to let anyone start celebrating too much on that one. With one of the most important voices in the locker room, he noted after the game that the 2014 team started the season 4-2 with a win against then-No. 21 Louisville but came up short of a bowl game. Kiser, by the way, stacked up 10 more tackles Saturday, giving him double-digit stops in 18 of his 29 games at UVA.
“It’s good, but I’ve been on a team that was 4-2 but didn’t go to a bowl game, so it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “But we want to keep going at it, taking each game as it comes, and hey, whatever happens, happens.”