While the odds favored the Virginia football team before kickoff with Duke on Saturday, the evens turned out to be the difference. The Cavaliers shook off shaky play in the first and third quarters with big bursts in the second and fourth quarter to dispatch the Blue Devils, 38-20.
That gave UVA its fourth straight win in a season opener under Bronco Mendenhall, including victories in an ACC game in the last two seasons. The Wahoos won at Pittsburgh last year, 30-14, in the season opener. Despite being at home, this one felt quite a bit different than that one. The Scott Stadium stands were nearly empty plus Virginia had waited through 12 weeks of preseason practice and multiple schedule shifts to get to its 2020 opener due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“It was a pretty surreal experience. There were so many times during the game I couldn’t believe we were playing and that it counted, and that it was for real,” Mendenhall said. “Unlike anything I’ve experienced before, I wanted so desperately for our players to have success on the field and have a tangible result to show for it because of just how diligent they have been in all the protocols. As you’ve seen, there’s different levels of discipline in relation to protocols. That’s just to this point and it could change for us tomorrow, but to this point, they’ve really done a nice job. I’m so happy for Brennan [Armstrong] in his first start and an ACC game to get a win. It was fun to watch our team play football. Lots to learn and plenty of things to improve. But, they were resilient and they played through their mistakes and different miscues, and ultimately pulled away toward the end. I’m encouraged. Certainly, lots of work, but I’m encouraged.”
This season’s first win required a second-half comeback. After Virginia led by a touchdown at the half, 17-10, Duke put together its second 10-0 quarter of the day – the first and third – to retake the lead. The Blue Devils marched 55 yards on their first drive of the second half to set up a 47-yard field goal for Charlie Ham. Later in the quarter, the two teams swapped interceptions inside the Cavalier 15-yard line on consecutive possessions. UVA’s Brenton Nelson snared one to stop a drive, but Brennan Armstrong returned the favor with a puzzling throw that fluttered moments later.
Rocky Shelton’s interception gave Duke prime field position at the 10 and it took just two plays to convert. On the scoring play, tight end Noah Gray slipped behind the defense and quarterback Chase Brice hit him for the touchdown from 8 yards out. With that play, the visitors were back in front with a 20-17 advantage on the scoreboard.
Minutes later, after another UVA drive came up empty, Duke was on the move again. The Blue Devils ripped off runs of 17 and 24 yards with a pass interference penalty in between for 15 more yards to quickly arrive at the Virginia 22-yard line. They opted for a backwards screen pass that looked to be a double pass, but even when the initial target was covered, Jalon Calhoun decided to make a late throw to another receiver over the middle. Mandy Alonso pressured the throw and it sailed in the air where Nelson made his second pick of the quarter at the 6-yard line.
That proved to be a big moment in the game because the Hoos went from on the ropes with to punching back.
“It was huge,” Mendenhall said. “We knew it was a gadget play but we didn’t know it was that one. That was a critical, critical play. Our defense was calling out gadget or trick before the ball was snapped, we just didn’t know what kind. Brenton happened to play it really well.”
The Cavaliers took full advantage in the fourth quarter. With the drive that started at its own 6 late in the third quarter, Virginia carried it into the fourth quarter and finished with a touchdown on a 10-play, 94-yard drive. It featured completions at the end when Armstrong connected with true freshman Lavel Davis Jr. for 39 and 18 yards, the latter being a fade route in the corner of the end zone. That pushed the hosts back in front 24-20.
The defense, which had another big day against Duke with 7 takeaways including 5 interceptions, helped UVA build on that momentum quickly. On the fourth play of the ensuing drive, Joey Blount intercepted Brice at midfield and that gave the offense a chance to go again. The Hoos didn’t need much time.
Virginia misfired on a gadget play of its own with Keytaon Thompson throwing deep after a reverse, but then the offense ripped off three straight big plays to get to the end zone again. Armstrong hit Wayne Taulapapa with a 9-yard pass and followed that with a 14-yard completion to tight end Tony Poljan to keep the drive alive on third down. On the next play, it was Armstrong to Davis again with a jumpball touchdown from 26 yards out and UVA was suddenly up by double digits for the first time at 31-20.
Davis finished with 4 catches for 101 yards and 2 TDs in his Cavalier debut. Armstrong completed 24 of 45 passes for 269 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He added 47 rushing yards and a score. Billy Kemp IV posted 7 catches for 70 yards, while Terrell Jana finished with 29 yards on 4 catches to extend his streak to 17 straight games with a catch. Poljan had 4 catches for 44 yards. Transfer Shane Simpson added 8 carries for 36 yards and 2 catches for 11 yards.
Defensively, Zane Zandier led the way with a career-high 15 tackles, while Nick Jackson added 12 more. Blount finished with 7 tackles, a forced fumble, and an interception, while transfer D’Angelo Amos added 7 tackles and a pick too. Noah Taylor chipped in 7 tackles with 1.5 sacks, while Charles Snowden and Gahm had 6 each. Gahm finished with a sack and a fumble recovery too. The defense’s five interceptions matched the program’s most in a game (10 times); the last time it happened before Saturday’s outing was when Duke’s Daniel Jones threw 5 picks in 2016.
Blount and Taulapapa came through in the final 7 minutes to put the game away for good. On a 4th-and-1 play inside the 30, Blount forced a fumble on Duke backup quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, who lost the ball as he tried to escape. Matt Gahm recovered at the 10-yard line and UVA needed just one play to throw the knockout punch. Taulapapa took a hand off up the middle and then the pile surged into the end zone to set the final margin. Taulapapa had a big day with 16 carries for 95 yards, a new career high, and 2 touchdowns.
“I think first and foremost, the O-Line really did their jobs tonight,” Taulapapa said. “We talked about it all offseason, the work they’ve been putting in so I’m just excited to see them really give push and especially in Brennan’s first time out there, we knew we needed to give him some sort of confidence. I think it was just blessing to see 12 weeks of work put in on the field. Duke played a great game, but we were able to come out with it.”
“Wayne [Taulapapa] and Shane [Simpson] they carried the load,” Armstrong said. “I mean we were popping off like five yards a carry and when you can do that as an offense, there’s a lot of other stuff that we can do on top of that. I just give credit to the O-Line, Wayne, and Shane. It’s an experienced O-Line, Wayne’s experienced, Shane’s experience just came from a different team, and now he’s in the mix. I mean they ran the ball well and I’m super proud of them.”
The game also got off to an inauspicious start for the hosts. On the season’s opening kickoff, Tavares Kelly fumbled inside the 20 and Duke grabbed a quick three points when UVA’s defense held. Once the Cavaliers got their first chance on offense, back-to-back drives produced little with a three-and-out followed by a short four-play drive. The Blue Devils had an early field position advantage as a result.
The Virginia defense’s first big hiccup came later in the first quarter. With less than three minutes to go in the opening period, Chase Brice hit Jake Marwede for a 55-yard touchdown pass up the seam. On the play, UVA’s linebacker released the tight end to run free and a combination of vertical routes burned the safeties. The Hoos trailed 10-0 after their first quarter of the season, while the Devils took the early lead in their third game of the season.
Fortunately for Wahoo fans, the team didn’t sulk and got back into it in the second quarter and then rallied again late to win. Virginia outscored Duke 17-0 in that second quarter behind a strong rushing attack. The Cavaliers gained 95 yards on 14 carries in that quarter and scored twice on the ground. Armstrong carried one in from 4 yards, while Taulapapa scored from 1 yard out. The offense finished with 188 rushing yards at 5.1 yards per carry (5.5 yards per carry adjusted for sacks), the biggest total in an ACC game since rushing for 208 yards against UNC in 2018.
Those rushing touchdowns helped fuel the 38-0 scoring outburst in the second and fourth quarters. That combined with the defense’s takeaways gave UVA its six straight against Duke, which fell to 0-3 this season. The Blue Devils have committed multiple turnovers in all six of the recent losses. During the Mendenhall era, Duke has 22 turnovers with 12 in the last two meetings.
“It was tough,” Mendenhall said. “That game was in the balance for a long, long time. Those turnovers really were the difference and those are forced and plays made, not just miscues by an opponent’s offense. I was encouraged and happy. That was the difference in the game in my opinion.”