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Virginia’s defense shines as Cavaliers start 2020 season with a win

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Hoos force seven turnovers in sixth straight win against Duke.

NCAA Football: Duke at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It took awhile to get here, but the Virginia Cavaliers finally got to play a football game in 2020. The Hoos overcame slow starts in both halves as they ended up dominating the visiting Duke Blue Devils, 38-20. Virginia’s defense forced seven turnovers in the game, coming up with five interceptions. The run defense was stifling, allowing just 56 rushing yards, but the Hoos were vulnerable in the air — especially through the middle — as they gave up 286 passing yards.

Brennan Armstrong had highs and lows in his debut as a starter, finishing 24-for-45 and 269 yards in the air with two touchdowns. On the ground, Armstrong showed his mobility with 47 yards on 10 carries with one touchdown. He did, however, throw two interceptions, one on the 10-yard line that resulted in an easy touchdown for the Blue Devils.

First year wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. was fantastic in his first game, snagging two touchdowns to go with 101 yards on four receptions. On the ground, Virginia far exceeded expectations. The Cavaliers finished with 189 rushing yards and an average of 5.3 yards per carry. Wayne Taulapapa had a career-high 95 yards on 16 carries (5.9 yards per carry) and added two touchdowns. Towson transfer Shane Simpson added 36 yards on eight carries.

Zane Zandier led the Hoos with 15 total tackles, followed by Nick Jackson with 12. The Virginia defense had five interceptions, five sacks, and two forced fumbles.

Duke’s Chase Brice finished the game with 246 yards on 16-for-36 passing with two touchdowns and four interceptions before being replaced in the fourth quarter.

It was Virginia’s ninth straight win at home, and sixth straight over Duke.

The Hoos got off to a slow start as Tavares Kelly fumbled the opening kickoff. Duke took over control at the 19-yard line, but Virginia’s defense set the tone early with a tough stand at the goal line that left the Blue Devils settling for the field goal and the early lead.

Virginia’s offense, predictably, struggled early as they tried to get back into a rhythm after the long layoff. Armstrong picked up the first first down of the season with his legs, but the Cavaliers punted three times in the first quarter and turned the ball over on downs once.

Nick Jackson came out of the game late in the first quarter after getting banged up, and Brice took advantage with a strike to tight end Jake Marwede for a 55-yard touchdown.

The Cavaliers hit their stride offensively in the second quarter. Armstrong and the Hoos responded with back-to-back touchdown drives on consecutive possessions. The first was mostly Armstrong as the quarterback rushed for 29 yards and passed for another 28 en route to his first touchdown of the season — a 4-yard rush at the goal line. After a stifling defensive stand that included the Hoos’ first sack of the season, Virginia took the lead with a 1-yard touchdown run from Taulapapa. The third-year running back picked up 22-yards on the drive, including rattling off a 19-yard pick up that set up first-and-goal.

A 32-yard field goal from Brian Delaney built Virginia’s lead to 17-10, and they could have built on it further after JMU transfer D’Angelo Amos registered the Cavaliers’ first pick of the season. Instead, Armstrong would throw a pick of his own to end the scoring threat with 1:17 left in the half.

Virginia’s defense would once again hold strong, sending the two teams into the locker rooms with the Hoos leading by seven. The Cavaliers dominated in the stats over the first half, leading Duke in total yards (230-150), rushing yards (129-24), and first downs (15-7). Armstrong was 11-for-25 for 101 yards in the first half, and added 45 yards on the ground. Despite question marks around the running game, Virginia’s Taulapapa, Armstrong, and Simpson combined to average 6.1 yards per carry over the first half with two touchdowns.

Duke notched its first points since the first quarter as they opened the second half with a 47-yard field goal from Charlie Ham. The Blue Devils took advantage of two big chunk plays to get into field goal range and got lucky when De’Vante Cross narrowly missed a pick that likely would have resulted in a huge return.

The Virginia offense struggled in the third quarter, giving Duke outstanding field position yet again, this time with Armstrong’s second pick of the game. The Blue Devils needed just two plays to retake the lead as Brice found Noah Gray in the end zone. Armstrong and the O put up zeroes in the third quarter, but a really questionable trick play from Duke stalled a Blue Devil threat in the red zone as Brenton Nelson intercepted it.

It looked like the Hoos were getting some momentum thanks to a 27-yard completion to Lavel Davis Jr., but a review overturned the call. Armstrong connected with Jana on the next play for a pick up of 15 yards, and Davis Jr. got his big catch two plays later for a 39-yard pick up. He came up huge again on the very next play, putting the Hoos back in front with an 18-yard touchdown reception.

Joey Blount and Nick Grant both joined the interception party, picking off Brice for his third and fourth interceptions of the game. The Cavaliers needed just four plays to go 49 yards and build their lead to 11 thanks to another touchdown catch from Davis. This time, he caught the ball around the six-yard line before dismissing three Duke defenders and entering the end zone for the 31-20 lead.

Another pick — this one by Nick Grant — and a forced fumble ended Duke drives, and Taulapapa scored his second touchdown of the game with this phenomenal effort to put the finishing touch on the game.

After a turnover on downs and a muffed punt by the Blue Devils, Virginia was able to take the victory formation and let the clock run out.

Things ended with some potentially bad news for the Cavaliers as Blount appeared to injure his knee making a tackle late in the 4th quarter.

Next up, Virginia travels to No. 1 Clemson in a rematch of the 2019 ACC Championship Game.