At this point we may have to concede that Virginia has Duke’s number.
The Cavaliers came into soggy Wallace Wade Saturday afternoon and handed Duke a 28-14 setback, their fourth straight win the series.
Virginia jumped to a 14-0 lead after 16 minutes and withstood a spirited Duke comeback that cut the lead to 20-14, with more than enough time to finish the comeback.
But Virginia finished the game the same way they started it, winning individual match-ups and making the plays they needed to make to win the game.
The first half was a Murphy’s Law kind of game for Duke. Anything that could go wrong did. Dropped passes, missed tackles and abysmal special-teams play.
The first few plays set the tone.
Virginia returned the opening kickoff 37 yards, to their 39.
Eight plays later, Virginia’s speedy quarterback Bryce Perkins was dancing into the end zone, from 23 yards out.
Less than four minutes into the game and Duke was pushing the boulder uphill.
David Cutcliffe denied that his team came out flat.
But reasonable minds can disagree.
“The biggest thing was we didn’t show up from then opening kickoff until about midway through the second quarter,” linebacker Joe-Giles-Harris says. “We gave up 14 quick points and that’s what happened. You can’t really break that lead. I know we have to show up from the first play to the last play if we’re going to win in the ACC.”
Offensive lineman Zach Harmon noted that Northwestern went up 7-0 on their opening drive and Duke came back to win.
“I don’t really think it fazes anybody. It’s more of when we go out there on offense and three or four drives and zero results. That’s when the morale starts going down a little bit, naturally.”
Duke ran six plays on their opening drive, then let Tavares Kelly return Austin Parker’s 55-yard punt 43 yards, to the Duke 45.
The Duke defense kept Virginia off the scoreboard, a Terrell Lucas sack the key play. But another drive went nowhere in a hurry and a 27-yard Chuck Davis punt return set Virginia up at the Duke 38.
Perkins scored five plays later and it was 14-0.
Cutcliffe called Duke’s special-teams woes an “outlier” and we have to hope so.
Duke’s offense simply had no answers, at least not in the opening half. Duke ran nine first-down plays in the first half and picked up all of six yards. Absent injured playmakers Brittain Brown and Aaron Young and constantly playing behind the chains, Duke had little margin for error.
Unfortunately, they made errors. Jarrett Garner, Chris Taylor and David Helm had big drops. The line couldn’t open holes for running back Deon Jackson. A promising drive just before halftime moved the ball to the Virginia 41. But Jones forced a first-down throw to Johnathan Lloyd into double coverage and Juan Thornhill picked it off in the end zone for his fourth interception of the season.
Cutcliffe admitted it was a forced throw, while Jones conceded the same.
The Duke defense started plugging the dike, tackling better and putting some pressure on Perkins.
It helped that Virginia’s Brian Delaney missed field goals of 33 and 51 yards.
It didn’t help that linebacker Ben Humphreys went down with a leg injury.
The half ended 14-0, Duke still tenuously holding on.
“A good time to look in the mirror,” according to Giles-Harris. “Then we started making stops, started swarming to the football. Looking each other in the eye and saying ‘let’s go.’ “
Duke responded with an impressive opening drive, Jones hitting Chris Taylor down the left sideline for 46 yards and it was 14-7.
Duke needed a stop to retain momentum.
Instead, the visitors chewed up over seven minutes in a 13-play drive that ended with a Delaney field goal.
“We just couldn’t’ capitalize on the momentum,” Harmon lamented. “I just felt like if we could have gotten a quick stop and the ball back sooner and the momentum kept rolling, who knows?
Delaney added a second field goal later in the quarter and Duke was on the ropes, at 20-7
The third quarter ended after Jones again tried to force the ball to Lloyd and ended with another interception.
The Duke defense gave Duke’s offense another chance and this time it came through, Jones doing most of the work. With the ball at the Virginia 22, wide receiver T.J. Rahming took the ball on an end-around and lofted a scoring strike to tight end Davis Koppenhaver.
Amazingly, Duke had the game for the taking, trailing by only six, with almost 11 minutes left.
They didn’t take it.
After one first down, Jones was sacked on three consecutive plays.
Facing a 4th and 20, Duke had no option other than to punt.
Again, the punt unit put the defense in a bad position, allowing Kelly to go 29 yards to the Duke 28. Virginia ended the scoring with a Perkins to Olamide Zaccheaus pass.
Cutcliffe fell on his sword. Metaphorically, of course.
“It’s pretty obvious that we made it easier for our opponent. The simple comment would be what I told our team--and this is not being gracious or humble--when this happens, it’s all on the head coach.”
He basically referred all follow-up questions to that opening statement.
Early indications are that Humphreys injury was not serious. However, left tackle Jaylen Miller should be out of surgery by the time you read this. His season is over.
Virginia returned three punts for 99 yards. Duke also interfered with Virginia fair catches twice, each resulting in a 15-yard penalty. Duke also had an illegal block. It got so bad that Duke was once penalized twice on the same play, only one of which could be enforced. Duke returned only one of Virginia’s kickoffs, for 17 yards, while T.J. Rahming returned three punts for six total yards.
Duke was unable to force a turnover. Giles-Harris attributed this to bad tackling, noting that it’s hard to try and strip the ball from someone if you can’t wrap them up first.
Jones ended the game with 22-for-40 passing, for 240 yards. He rushed for 64 yards but lost 27 of them, for a net of 37 yards. That still made him Duke’s leading rusher, as Jackson was held to a dismal 17 yards on 11 rushes.
Chris Taylor overcame that early drop to end the game with a career-high 97 yards, on six receptions.
Rahming also had six catches, bringing his career total to 208, passing Donovan Varner and moving into third in school history.
Koppenhaver’s touchdown catch was the 10th of his Duke career, tying him with Stan Crisson for most TDs by a tight end, although I’m not sure the 6-1, 200-pound Crisson would met any modern definition of a tight end.
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