Jeffrey Fitzgerald returned a fumble for a touchdown. The D forced 5 turnovers at Duke.
Sometimes, it’s nice to get a little help from your friends.
With Virginia’s offense struggling all season long, the defense and special teams provided a much-needed boost on Saturday at Duke. The Cavaliers produced three interceptions, a fumble return for touchdown, a blocked punt, and a key punt return that set up the first score of the game. The result? A 37-0 romp in Durham.
“It looks like all three units did something positive to contribute to the victory,” UVa coach Al Groh said in his postgame press conference. “It’s very positive to get the win. Clearly, we still have some work to do but for now, we’ll let the players enjoy this victory.”
Those game-changing plays disguised another day of limited production from the offense, which came up with few sustained drives until late in the game thanks to sacks and third-down conversions. In the end, UVa had 253 yards of offense on the strength of 106 yards rushing, a number hurt by the sacks. The offense did capitalize on the excellent field position provided by the defense and special teams by putting 30 points on the scoreboard.
Most of those points came in the first quarter when the Cavaliers’ defense (which forced 5 turnovers on the day and held Duke to minus 21 yards rushing) and special teams set things up to make it easy on the offense.
The Hoos got started with a strong showing from the defense, which immediately forced a 3-and-out from Duke and a near interception by Byron Glaspy. UVa still picked up good field position when Mike Brown, who was returning punts for the first time this season, fielded the ball and broke it along the left sideline. Brown took the ball to the Blue Devils’ 27-yard line.
The Cavaliers capitalized with a touchdown, though they did have to overcome a sack with a third-down conversion. The TD play followed a delay of game penalty and a timeout. UVa ran a reverse to Emmanuel Byers , who threw the 21-yard touchdown pass to Fontel Mines behind the defense. Byers, who also made the key third-down catch on the drive, sold the running play before throwing downfield to a wide-open Mines.
That gave UVa the 7-0 lead on its first first-quarter touchdown of the season. In fact, it was the first time in 2006 that the Hoos scored first.
Virginia’s defense backed that up with another big play to give the offense good field position again. This time, Marcus Hamilton tackled a receiver short of the first-down marker and Duke fumbled the snap when it went for it on fourth down. That gave UVa possession at the Devils’ 29-yard marker.
The Hoos took advantage again with Chris Gould ‘s field goal at 8:09 and that made the score 10-0.
After the defense forced another 3-and-out, the special teams came up with a big play to create great field position yet again. The play? Josh Zidenberg broke through to block his second punt of the season and that gave Virginia possession on the Duke 1-yard line where Jamaal Jackson fell on the football. Zidenberg is the first Cavalier to block two punts in a season since Anthony Poindexter blocked three in 1996 (Central Michigan, N.C. State, Miami).
“All week in practice, we worked against that particular formation,” Zidenberg said on the Virginia Sports Network after the game. “Coach [Bob] Diaco told me in that situation that if I saw that formation, then it automatically activated me on the play [to go for the block]. I just went after it and got it.”
One play later, Jason Snelling took the pitch to the right side for a 17-0 Cavalier lead. It was part of a good afternoon for Snelling, who finished with 92 yards rushing.
Jason Snelling had 92 yards rushing against Duke.
“Jason did a nice job. He’s got a good feel for it,” Groh said. “Mikell [Simpson] had a little bounce to his step when he came in too. We still have a lot of work to do, but [the running game] certainly was better than it has been.”
The defense kept rolling after its fast start. Marcus Hamilton picked up two interceptions in the opening half, which helped him surpass Duke’s John Talley as the ACC’s career leader. Blue Devil quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, a true freshman, had yet to throw an INT before this game.
If that wasn’t enough, the defense also scored in the first half and set up two other second-half touchdowns for the offense. Late in the second quarter, Clint Sintim ‘s blitz forced a fumble by Lewis and the ball bounced out to the left side of the defense. Jeffrey Fitzgerald , who has been off to a strong start this season, scooped up the ball and returned it for the touchdown with less than two minutes to play before intermission. That gave UVa 24-0 halftime lead.
“I think I did pretty well. A lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time and I capitalized on the opportunities,” Fitzgerald on the Virginia Sports Network after the game. He said he hadn’t scored a touchdown since his junior year in high school.
Fitzgerald and Hamilton teamed up to force another turnover late in the third quarter. On third-and-24, Hamilton brought a delayed blitz and nailed Lewis in the pocket. The ball popped straight into the air where Fitzgerald snared the pass for the first interception of his career.
“Marcus was in on three take-aways today because he had that strip sack too. When you’re in on three take-aways, that’s a significant part in the game. He was upset after the last game and we talked about how to improve on that. I’m happy to see him have a good game,” Groh said. “Jeffrey, that’s an element of his game. As we’re seeing with the development of this particular defensive team, we’re going to have to get stuff done more with our athleticism than pure power, at least more so than in the past let’s say. Jeffrey is having a successful season at the halfway mark.”
That gave the offense possession at the Devils’ 8-yard line. After losing yards on first down, the Cavaliers eventually punched it in for a 30-0 lead. The touchdown play came on third down when Sewell completed a play-action pass to tight end Tom Santi for a 12-yard score.
The final score for the Hoos came courtesy of another fumble recovery. Christian Olsen checked in for Sewell and helped manage a touchdown drive. Reserve running back Mikell Simpson punched in a run in the final minute to make the final score 37-0. It was the first TD of his career.
“It was a big step up from last week,” Sewell said. “It’s an extremely big win and good to get it under our belts. It’s a W, but now it’s in the past and we have to look forward to getting ready for ECU.”
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