The Virginia Cavaliers pulled out a gutsy comeback win at home on Saturday, combining excellent defense with some timely offense to edge Duke 28-21. Both teams’ offenses struggled for most of the first half, but the UVa defense kept the game close until the Cavalier offense kicked into gear in the second half. It was Virginia’s third consecutive win, and it puts the ‘Hoos in excellent shape to qualify for a bowl game. Below are the keys to the game, as well as a look ahead to this week’s match-up against North Carolina.
Keys to the Game:
Complete Domination on Defense: As has been the case for most of the season, the Virginia defense led the way on Saturday afternoon. It was a masterful performance – Duke was held to just 255 yards of total offense, and the Blue Devils turned the ball over twice in the first half. Senior S Quin Blanding intercepted Duke QB Daniel Jones on the first drive of the day and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown, and junior CB Juan Thornhill added another interception later in the first quarter. The Cavalier pass rush consistently collapsed the pocket and made Jones uncomfortable, allowing him to complete only 14 of his 42 attempts for a measly 124 yards.
The rest of the Duke offense was not able to get into much of a rhythm either. Virginia’s third-down defense entered the game ranked eighth in the country, and on Saturday they forced ten Blue Devil punts and another crucial turnover on downs that sealed the victory. Duke’s only scoring drive of note came in the second quarter, a 15 play, 88-yard affair that took almost seven minutes. But UVa clamped down in the second half, allowing the ‘Hoos to walk away with the victory.
Winning the Field Position Battle: Offense was a bit of a struggle for the Cavaliers, particularly in the first half, which made field position extremely important. Fortunately junior P Lester Coleman had his best game of the season. His eight punts averaged 50.8 yards apiece, and he downed three punts inside the Duke 20-yard line. Duke was forced to start drives from deep within their own half of the field, which became especially important late in the fourth quarter when the Blue Devils were down two scores and racing against the clock to catch up. Sophomore WR Joe Reed did not have many opportunities to return kick-offs (a good problem to have), but he took advantage of the chances he did have, averaging 27 yards per return and setting the Virginia offense up nicely to start drives. Good teams always take advantage of the more granular in-game details like field position, so it was encouraging to see the Cavaliers execute so well in that area.
In-Game Offensive Adjustments: Unlike the last two games, when Virginia put up 42 and 38 points respectively, the Cavalier offense got off to a really rough start this past weekend. Benkert turned the ball over twice, including a pick-6 that allowed Duke to tie the score at 7, and the ‘Hoos were only able to tally 86 total yards in the first half. However, the coaching staff deserves credit for making adjustments at halftime that got things rolling in the third quarter. The Cavaliers put together a 10 play, 79-yard drive on their first possession of the second half that concluded with senior WR Doni Dowling’s first touchdown of the day. Benkert also improved, using short passes to get the ball out of his hands quickly and break down a Duke defense that had been crowding the line of scrimmage. It helped remarkably – UVa converted seven of their eleven third-downs in the second half, after only going one-for-seven on third-down in the first half.
Further, the Cavaliers were able to move the ball on the ground in the second half. Although it was not the most efficient rushing display, Virginia tallied 128 rushing yards against a Blue Devils run defense that entered the game as the best in the ACC. Junior RB Jordan Ellis had his third consecutive game with at least 90 rushing yards, and Benkert had some effective scrambles in the fourth quarter that helped move the chains and extend drives.
Player of the Game: S Quin Blanding
The Cavalier’s defense stepped up in a big way in a game in which their offense was slow starting, and Blanding, a team captain, led the charge. His 58-yard interception return for a touchdown less than three minutes into the game put Virginia’s first points on the board and set a tone for the day. Additionally, his leadership in the back of the secondary was a huge reason Duke was only able to complete a third of their passes. Blanding was second on the team with eight tackles, and he had a crucial pass deflection in the fourth quarter that prevented a touchdown pass. He’s been an important player for the Cavaliers for the last few seasons, and on Saturday he was a star once again, showing why he was a preseason second team All-American.
Next Week: Saturday, October 14th vs. North Carolina (1-5), 3:30pm at Kenan Memorial Stadium
Virginia will head south to Chapel Hill this Saturday to face the UNC Tar Heels in the Cavaliers’ first ACC road game of the season. UNC has started the season rather poorly, having won only one of their first six games. They lost a number of players to graduation or the NFL draft, including starting quarterback and second overall draft pick Mitch Trubisky, and have struggled this year to stay healthy. It has shown on the field – the Tar Heels average only 25.6 points scored per game, 93rdin the nation, while conceding 33 per game, tied for 102nd. Still, despite UNC’s struggles and UVa opening as 3pt favorites in Las Vegas, ESPN’s Football Power Index match-up predictor gives the Heels a 62.4% chance to win the game. The Cavaliers will need to carry the momentum from their three-game win streak into a game in which their opponents will be desperate for a win. Something to watch: the Tar Heels allow over 240 rushing yards per game to opposing offenses, and UVa has run the ball much more successfully the last few weeks. It will be important to establish a ground game early on Saturday will be important if the Cavaliers are going to secure the win.