While the Virginia football team entered the game with Duke at 2-8 and out of bowl contention, it still believed it had plenty to play for Saturday.
The past week marked the one-year anniversary of the deaths of teammates Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler, and D’Sean Perry, who lost their lives in a tragic shooting last November. Perris Jones, a senior running back for this year’s team, remained in Louisville following a difficult hit and subsequent spine surgery. So off the field, the Hoos faced adversity but also found inspiration. On the field, there was a carrot to chase too. UVA had yet to win an ACC home game in the Tony Elliott era.
Encouraged to toe the line and defend their home turf, these Cavaliers showed once again they have no quit and plenty of grit. This time that paid off in a 30-27 victory over the Blue Devils, a welcomed win in a season full of close losses.
“That group of people in that locker room, staff and players, awesome people,” Elliott said. “And those players in there are gonna go do great things because of the adversity that they’ve had to persevere through. So just so humble, so thankful, so grateful that they got to experience victory. Because at the end of the day, it’s a group of winners. I know, people are gonna judge us by scores and stats and wins and losses, but that’s a group of winners in there that are going to do great things in life. It was a tough week, but I’ll tell you what, the guys took it in stride and took ownership of it and had a really good week of practice and allowed them to be able to play the way they did today.”
To get this one into the win column, Virginia needed plays from all three operations during the course of the game. The offense scored first in each half and engineered a key field drive in the fourth quarter. The defense came up with two take-aways in UVA territory as the Hoos won the turnover margin 2-0. Special teams came through with a kick in the final four minutes to make it a two-score game and then recovered Duke’s final onsides kick attempt to officially seal the victory.
So while the performance wasn’t pristine – 12 penalties for 117 yards, a missed field goal, and 9 tackles for loss allowed specifically – the Cavaliers found a way to overcome those mistakes and hold on for a win. They certainly relished the moment. The team sang the Good Old Song as always with an appreciative student section, the spirit squads, and each other before breaking out into a celebration of cheers, dancing, and more.
“We were just trying to give back to our fans. We wanted the W more than anything,” UVA linebacker Kam Robinson said. “We’d a gave an arm and leg for the W. I’m just happy we pulled it out.”
Virginia got several big individual performances as part of that effort. Unsurprisingly, Malik Washington delivered one of them. The senior receiver continued his remarkable season with 8 catches for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. That’s the ninth 100-yard receiving game of the season for Washington, who now owns multiple single season records in the UVA record book. He has 96 catches, 1,311 yards receiving, and 9 touchdowns this season. The catches and yards set new Virginia records.
Both of Washington’s touchdowns against Duke proved critical given the final 3-point margin. The first got the Hoos on the board with 7:29 to go when he took a catch over the middle toward the student section and scored from 34 yards out. That catch pushed him past Dontayvion Wicks for the single season receiving yards mark. Later, he made a huge play for the team on his touchdown catch in the third quarter. On 3rd-and-Goal from the 7-yard line, Washington sprinted toward the left corner of the end zone, reached out over a Duke defender, and hauled in the ball for a 24-10 lead.
Washington’s outing accounted for a big chunk of quarterback Anthony Colandrea’s production. The true freshman picked up his first win as a starter by completing 21 of 30 passes for 278 yards and 3 touchdowns. While Washington had a pair of scoring catches, the other touchdown went to Malachi Fields who made a 29-yard touchdown catch with 11:03 remaining in the third quarter. Fields made 4 catches for 74 yards as one of eight different players with a reception in the game.
Colandrea also had 0 interceptions and was sacked only once. He added 66 rushing yards as well to lead the team in that category, though Kobe Pace and Mike Hollins combined for 104 yards on 28 carries as well. Pace posted 21 carries for 54 yards, while Hollins tallied 7 carries for 50 yards. It added up to 170 rushing yards, the sixth-straight game to surpass the century mark – the last time the program reached that long of stretch came in 2020.
Of course, one of the most important drives of the game featured several of those runs. The Cavaliers started the drive with 9:03 left in the game with the score sitting at 27-20. They proceeded to take 14 snaps and ate up 5:20 of game time, which also forced the Blue Devils to use all three of their timeouts. When Will Bettridge sent a 30-yard field goal through the uprights, Virginia owned a two-score lead and it had dictated the strategy to Duke, which was forced to attempt the final onsides kicks as a result when it closed to within 30-27.
“As coaches we’ll always say there’s a couple of things we want to clean up, but to not have any turnovers was huge,” Virginia coach Des Kitchings said. “Defense gained two turnovers. We ran the ball well. These kids, with all that was going throughout the course of the game, never flinched, never batted an eye, and we stayed locked in and focused and we finished the game. That’s a big step for this program and moving forward.”
Defensively, Robinson led all players in the game with 11 tackles. He also had a pass break-up. Tayvonn Kyle matched his career-high with 9 tackles and he recovered the sealing onsides kick as well. James Jackson chipped in 8 tackles, while Dre Walker had 6 tackles and 2 pass break-ups. Aaron Faumui posted 4 tackles with 1 pass break-up and 1 quarterback hurry.
Virginia couldn’t quite put the game away as Duke converted three third downs on its final drive for a touchdown, but the group did come up with some key stops. The Cavaliers held Duke out of the end zone to force field goal attempts on three key drives for example. The Devils got to the 11 at the end of the first half, but settled for a 29-yard field goal. Then in the third quarter, the visitors drove to the 16- and 27-yard lines before the Virginia defense made important third down plays to bring on the kicking units. On the first, Josh Ahern broke up a 3rd-and-4 pass attempt. On the second, Walker made a quick tackle on a screen that gained 0 yards and Duke kicker Todd Pelino missed the 44-yard attempt.
Of course, the Hoos’ two take-aways within their own territory obviously proved big too. Jonas Sanker forced a fumble that Caleb Hardy recovered at the UVA 15-yard line, while Hardy also intercepted a pass at the Hoos’ 42-yard line as well. Sanker finished with 7 tackles and 2 pass break-ups, while Hardy added 2 tackles too.
“It was a routine play,” Sanker said of his team-leading third forced fumble this season. “My guy sliced across, I just fit my gap, hit the guy, the ball came out, and Caleb was there to recover it. It was one of those ‘Oh wow, let’s go’ – it was exciting.”
It all added up to the Cavaliers’ third win of the season and their second ACC victory. After the year started with the lopsided 49-13 loss to Tennessee and an 0-5 record that had winless whispers swirling, the 3-3 record since Oct. 1 has shown a little bit of the team’s resilience. The Cavaliers have lost five games this season by 7 or fewer points too so they had opportunities for the 3-8 record to look better too.
Regardless of the challenges faced, Elliott said he sees progress in the program.
“For me, it’s mentality, mindset, attention to detail, the way that we play, and we are making progress in my opinion,” Elliott said. “Then I say hey, and I told the guys in the locker room, we’ve had to deal with some adversity that’s not normal to college football and the guys have taken it in stride. Everything that they’ve been challenged with, they haven’t backed down from. They’ve learned from it. They’ve missed some opportunities, but they’ve showed up every single day. For me, if a group can stick together, continue to fight, continue to believe when everyone around them is telling them to stop believing or why would you believe, tells me that there is progress being made.”