How would the University of Virginia football program respond to its 4-2 start and its first victory over a ranked opponent since 2014? If today’s impressive effort at Duke is any indication, then the answer is a good one if you’re a Cavalier fan.
Thanks to quality play in all three phases of the game, Virginia football started strong, finished strong, and answered every challenge while earning a 28-14 win over the Blue Devils Saturday afternoon in Durham. The win boosts Virginia’s 2018 record to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in Atlantic Coast Conference play. Duke drops to 5-2 overall, 1-2 in the conference.
“I’m obviously really excited and proud of our team,” said head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who has guided Virginia to three straight wins over Duke since he became Cavalier head coach. Virginia has now won four straight over the Blue Devils. “We’re coming off of the Miami win last week and that presented a significant challenge. It was considered and labeled a lot of different things by folks as signature, breakthrough, or etc. Once that is out there, that really makes every game after more challenging, especially the next one. So our team showed the maturity and resiliency to come on the road and start fast. It wasn’t just the way that they played the game, the start was indicative of their mindset. We worked really hard on that to erase Miami on Monday, and insert Duke. Our players took that to heart. Our special teams and our return game was the catalyst for this victory, especially early on. Duke is very strong on defense but they were backed up consistently. Field position through our return game gave us a really nice advantage and momentum in a start after coming on the road into this environment.”
Junior Joe Reed opened the game with a 37-yard kickoff return to the Virginia 39, good field position the Cavalier offense didn’t squander. Led by quarterback Bryce Perkins, the Hoos marched 61 yards in eight plays, ending with a Perkins 23-yard touchdown run. Perkins, a junior, accounted for 53 of Virginia’s 61 yards on the drive on his way to racking up 259 total yards (189 passing, 61 rushing, 9 receiving) and 3 touchdowns (2 rushing, 1 passing) on the afternoon.
Virginia thoroughly dominated the first quarter, maintaining possession for 11:07 to Duke’s 3:53, totaling 123 yards of offense to Duke’s 13 yards, and achieving six first downs to Duke’s one. The Cavaliers went up 14-0 early in the second quarter on a Perkins 3-yard touchdown run in which he took off to the right, outran linebacker Ben Humphries and stretched in to the end zone for six. UVA was in scoring position thanks to a 27-yard punt return by Chuck Davis down to the Blue Devil 38 and a 27-yard pass from Perkins to Reed to the Duke 6.
Duke crossed into Virginia territory only twice the entire first half and didn’t come close to scoring, but the home team only trailed 14-0 thanks to two missed field goals by Cavalier placekicker Brian Delaney.
As expected, the Blue Devils made a second-half push, beginning with the opening drive. Quarterback Daniel Jones hit Chris Taylor for a 46-yard touchdown pass to cut Virginia’s lead in half, 14-7, just over a minute into the third quarter.
Luckily for the Hoos, they have Perkins. On its ensuing drive, UVA faced a 3rd-and-4 on its own 44. Perkins escaped pressure and rolled right before finding sophomore running back Jamari Peacock for an 18-yard gain, which turned out to be a big play in terms of momentum. The Cavaliers ultimately extended its lead to 10 on this drive on a 37-yard Brian Delaney field goal.
For Virginia, it’s also good to have Bryce Hall.
Hall, who was given the postgame honor of breaking the rock, was terrific with three pass breakups and one interception. Two of the junior cornerback’s most important plays came in the third quarter, with Duke trying to build momentum. On Duke’s possession following the Delaney field goal, Hall came up with a third down pass breakup to force a punt. The Hoos subsequently drove the field again for another field goal to take a 20-7 lead. Hall intercepted Jones on Duke’s next possession, securing UVA’s 13-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
Duke would close the deficit to six points early in the fourth quarter, as some trickery worked when wide receiver T.J. Rahming connected with tight end Davis Koppenhaver on a 22-yard touchdown pass. But thanks to big-time plays on special teams, defense and offense, the Hoos were able to finish strong and come away with the win.
After closing to within six, Duke’s defense forced a Virginia punt on the very next drive. Senior Lester Coleman’s 47-yard punt pinned the Blue Devil offense at its own 12. Duke gained 11 yards and a first down on the first play of the drive before the Hoos’ defense slammed the door. Senior outside linebacker Chris Peace sacked Jones on first down, sophomore defensive lineman Mandy Alonso and junior defensive lineman Eli Hanback teamed up for a 2-yard tackle-for-loss on second down, and Peace and sophomore Charles Snowden led an avalanche of defenders to sack Jones on third down, forcing a Duke punt.
True freshman Tavares Kelly’s 29-yard punt return gave Virginia prime position at the Blue Devil 28. Four plays later, Perkins connected with tight end Evan Butts for a 16-yard touchdown pass. Perkins then hit Zaccheaus for a successful 2-point conversion, giving UVA a 28-14 lead with 3:58 left to play. It was effectively game over at that point, but Virginia forced a turnover on downs on Duke’s next drive for good measure.
“We’re starting to play more complementary football,” Mendenhall said. “That means if the defense stops, then the return game goes. It’s not neutral, but it actually builds off of that, and then hopefully the offense builds off of that. It’s been a while but the complementary nature of our team the last two weeks in particular is growing and becoming better.”
Led by its quarterback, Virginia finished with 178 yards rushing, averaging exactly four yards per carry. Senior running back Jordan Ellis contributed 12 carries for 55 yards (4.6 yards per carry), all of which came in the first half. Ellis didn’t return in the second-half after suffering an injury on Virginia’s final drive of the second quarter.
Zaccheaus led Virginia in receiving with 10 receptions for 66 yards. Junior wide receiver Hasise Dubois chipped in four catches for 41 yards, and Butts and Reed each contributed two catches for a total of 57 yards.
A smothering Cavalier defense held the Blue Devils to only 58 yards rushing on 27 carries, an average of just 2.1 yards per rush. Jones completed 22-of-40 passes for 240 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. The junior signal caller is now 0-3 versus Virginia, which has picked him off a total of nine times in those meetings.
Virginia harassed Jones to the tune of four sacks and two quarterback hurries. Peace was credited with 2.5 of those sacks. Senior safety Juan Thornhill and sophomore inside linebacker Zane Zandier led the Hoos with eight tackles apiece, with Thornhill coming up with an interception.
Virginia returns home for another Coastal Division matchup next Saturday, October 27, when it hosts North Carolina. The Cavaliers and Tar Heels kickoff at 12:20 p.m.
– Highlights …