Coach Al Groh’s team is off to a 1-3 start this season.
For the Virginia faithful, it doesn’t get worse than this.
Duke’s 31-3 win, which snapped a streak of 25 straight ACC losses, was enough to depress any Wahoo on Saturday afternoon. The offense sputtered to zero third down conversions in eight first-half tries and had five turnovers in the second half, sparking a four-touchdown runaway for the Blue Devils.
“We had too many turnovers and too much bad field position,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “Those two things pretty much tied together in some circumstances to make it really challenging for the defense to keep the points down.”
This is the fourth time in four games the Cavaliers have failed to score more than once through three quarters. Against Duke, it was not for a lack of moving the chains. Virginia outran the Blue Devils (110 rushing yards to Duke’s 84), threw for more yards (194-174), and picked up more first downs (17-16), but interceptions on back-to-back series from Marc Verica in the second half broke Virginia’s back. A pick in the red zone by middle linebacker Mike Tauiliili with the score 17-3 and another that was returned 42 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Jabari Marshall to pump the score to 24-3 was enough to get the few Duke fans in attendance to cheer their first ACC win since November 13, 2004.
“There was never really any point where I was nervous or anything like that,” Verica said. “There were some times where my execution was poor, and I’ve just got to get better.”
In addition to the inability to convert a single third down in the first half, Virginia also failed to move the chains on its only fourth down try of the half, as junior Mikell Simpson was stopped inches short of the marker on a 4th-and-1 on Duke’s 20 yard-line.
“Fourth and a short yard, we expect to make that,” Groh said. “I’m not going to say it took something out of us, but it certainly could have added something to us, particularly points.”
In spite of the awful day for Verica, Groh said he never had any intention of putting in second-stringer Scott Deke as he did in the third quarter against Connecticut. Of the six Virginia turnovers on the day, four interceptions and a fumble were credited to Verica.
“You can’t run for the hills when things are tough,” Groh said. “This is what separates some guys sometimes, when everybody in the world knows that it didn’t go the way that you wanted it to.”
The UVa offense managed just three points.
While the offense was anemic from the opening whistle, the Virginia defense held Duke to three points through two-plus quarters. On Duke’s opening drive in the second half, however, the defense fell apart after Clint Sintim and sophomore cornerback Ras-I Dowling both went down with cramps on the first play of the drive. Both players were having mesmerizing performances to that point, as Dowling had hauled in two interceptions and Sintim had earned two sacks; both, however, would not return until the score reached a 17-point margin.
“Those were clearly not just two real good players for us, but … two of our principal playmakers on defense,” Groh said. “After that, we were just kind of rocking along on defense without those plays, so we would have liked to have to have had them in there for sure.”
After Sintim went down, he was carted into the locker room and hooked up to three IVs, he said, as Duke found the end zone on back-to-back drives.
“I’ve never been an injury guy, never been a guy whose missed too many plays around here,” Sintim said. “For me to come out when the game’s on the line, it kind of feels like I’m letting my teammates down.”
Adding fuel to the fire, Virginia made the rather sizeable error of losing track of the Blue Devils’ most explosive offensive weapon in wide receiver Eron Riley not once, but twice on back-to-back possessions. The first missed assignment merely led to a seven-yard completion; on the second occasion, however, Lewis swung it to Riley on a quick snap and Riley waltzed in from Virginia’s 30 yard-line for a TD to push the lead to 14. Riley, who had 19 catches and a 77.3 yards per game average coming into the afternoon, had just one other catch for a loss of a yard.
“It certainly is very frustrating,” Groh said of Riley’s 30-yard touchdown reception. “The two players on that side of the field simply failed to see him.”
Not to be excluded from Virginia’s misfortune were some bad breaks in the punting game. Duke punter Kevin Jones – who came into the afternoon averaging 45.1 yards per punt – twice booted it well short of his average and short of Virginia’s Vic Hall, but the ball took Duke bounces that ultimately led to poor Virginia field position. After Hall let the first such punt roll out of bounds for a 54-yard punt in the first quarter, he mishandled the second one before scooping it up and losing five yards.
“It’s one of those almost ironic things – bad punts gave us bad field position,” Groh said. “Certainly we would have liked to field some of those; maybe we’ll get some lessons in terms of when to be on them and when to be off them.”
Fans and media alike may have a few more lessons that they would like Virginia to learn after the team’s third loss by 28-plus points, but the players were unanimous in saying that their focus must now, more than ever, remain internal.
“We’re going to pull this thing together,” junior Rashawn Jackson said. “We’re going to hold each other’s hands, we’re going to grab each other, and we’re going to drag this thing along.”