The Virginia Cavaliers (4-1, 1-0 ACC) took a big step towards bowl eligibility with a 28-21 win over the Duke Blue Devils (4-2, 1-2 ACC) in sunny Charlottesville on UVA’s Bicentennial celebration weekend. Quarterback Kurt Benkert overcame a slow start to finish 24-for-43 with 182 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Jordan Ellis had 96 yards on 25 carries and Doni Dowling chipped in two touchdowns and 52 yards. The ever multi-faceted Olamide Zaccheaus led the team in receiving with 69 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions.
Jordan Mack and Micah Kiser led the defense with 10 tackles each, and Quin Blanding chipped in eight tackles and a touchdown.
Duke’s Daniel Jones finished with 124 yards, one touchdown, and one interception on 14-for-42 (33%) passing. Virginia held Duke’s strong running duo of Brittain Brown and Shaun Wilson to just 82 yards and no touchdowns.
After a big return to the 40 yard line by Joe Reed on the opening kick-off, Duke’s defense stood tall on fourth down as they stuffed an Ellis rush attempt up the middle.
The Virginia defense gave Duke hell on first and second down, forcing Daniel Jones to attempt a pass on third down. Duke’s wide receiver tipped the ball into the open arms of Blanding, who returned it 58-yards to the house for six points. It was Blanding’s first interception of the season, and his first career touchdown.
The pick-six was Virginia’s first since Max Valles recorded one against Pitt in 2014.
Neither team was particularly impressive offensively in the first quarter. Both offenses registered just two first downs and tossed two interceptions in the first 15 minutes of the game. Their yardage wasn’t much better.
After a Juan Thornhill interception late in the first looked to give Virginia some momentum, Benkert returned the favor one play later, leading to a pick-six by Duke’s Jeremy McDuffie.
Duke got their first offensive touchdown in two weeks with five minutes left in the first half as Jones orchestrated a drive - primarily with his feet - that found tight end Davis Koppenhaver in the end zone.
Virginia went three and out on the ensuing offensive possession, but after a stand by the defense, the Hoos got another chance to even the score. Thanks to some obvious pass interference by Duke defensively, Benkert & Co. were able to establish some rhythm and eventually found Zaccheaus for an 11-yard touchdown reception.
The score was knotted 14-14 at the half, with each squad scoring on a pick-six and a prolonged drive.
Defensively, both UVA and Duke were outstanding in the first half. Duke held Virginia to just 86 total yards and seven first downs with two interceptions. Only thirty yards came on the ground for the Hoos, with 56 through the air. The Blue Devils had 128 total yards in the first half, but 51 rush yards from Jones.
Virginia came out of halftime with some energy, forcing Duke into a three-and-out and putting together their most complete drive of the game to give the Hoos a 21-14 lead with 10:30 left in the third. The Cavaliers drove 79 yards in 10 plays, capping it off with a goal-line reception by Doni Dowling.
Duke was unable to get anything going in the third quarter, but got a big stop defensively in holding the Hoos on a third down as the quarter expired. Virginia went for it on the fourth-and-one play, but a wide open Jordan Ellis was unable to corral the pass and Virginia turned it over on downs.
The Blue Devils put together a mini-drive of five plays and 27 yards before Virginia’s defense came up with another big stop to give the Hoos the ball back. Benkert and the Hoos orchestrated a 13 play, 80 yard, and 6:05 minute drive that ended with a 17-yard touchdown by Dowling.
Dowling flipped into the end zone, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct flag, and Duke’s Shaun Wilson returned the ensuing kickoff 76 yards to the Virginia 12. After a holding call on the UVA defense on third and seven, Quintin Harris rushed for the four yard touchdown to make it a 28-21 game with over six minutes remaining.
Virginia’s defense answered the call with an effort that would make Tony Bennett proud, forcing Duke into a three-and-out. The Blue Devils would get one more chance, but again the defense stood tall, sacking Jones twice and forcing a turnover on downs. Benkert and the offense were able to take the victory formation and run out the clock for the win.
Next up, the Hoos travel to Chapel Hill to take on the Tar Heels. The game will be televised on regional networks, and is set to kick off at 3:30.
For now, enjoy and remember...only YOU can hope for a bowl game!