A week after avoiding miscues in a comeback win against Notre Dame, Duke reverted back to its inconsistent habits Saturday afternoon.
The Blue Devils could not overcome five interceptions and a late fumble by redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones, falling to Virginia 34-20 at Wallace Wade Stadium. Despite a strong start for Duke, the Cavaliers capitalized on Jones’ first-half mistakes to take a 20-10 lead at halftime—one they would not relinquish.
The Blue Devils came within one possession in the fourth quarter, but Jones was crushed in the end zone with 4:24 left in the game and coughed it up, allowing Virginia to ice the game by recovering the fumble for a touchdown.
“We got out-everything-ed across the board,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said.
Although the Blue Devils often forced Cavalier quarterback Kurt Benkert to escape the pocket, the Virginia signal-caller picked apart the Duke secondary, finishing 23-of-41 for 336 yards and three touchdowns to punish Jones and company for their mistakes.
Saturday’s homecoming loss resembled the Blue Devils’ first three games, when Duke struggled to stop explosive plays and committed 10 turnovers—it now leads the FBS in turnovers with 17 through five games.
“We’re going to have a long laundry list of things that we have to repair that I am deeply concerned with,” Cutcliffe said. “From this point, I’m looking forward to putting that list together starting with me. I need to be smarter and I need to be better.”
Jones first ran into trouble during his third drive after finding sophomore T.J. Rahming for a touchdown pass to give the Blue Devils (2-3, 0-2 in the ACC) a 7-0 lead earlier in the game. But when the 6-foot-5 quarterback escaped a Virginia blitz later in the first quarter, he was intercepted by Juan Thornhill.
Although the Cavaliers (2-3, 1-0) did not turn that interception into points, they cut into Duke’s lead later in the quarter with Benkert’s 28-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver David Eldridge—who later broke free for an 84-yard pass to set up Virginia’s second touchdown. Eldridge finished with a game-high 112 receiving yards.
Jones’ next three interceptions came in a flurry in the second quarter, allowing the Cavaliers to build a 10-point halftime lead when Benkert found Olamide Zaccheaus in the corner of the end zone just before the end of the second quarter.
The Blue Devils’ first-half miscues were largely a product of miscommunications and inaccurate passes, with erratic throws and timely plays by Virginia’s defense costing Duke.
“I have a lot to learn from this and we have to keep moving on,” Jones said. “That’s the most important part, learning from it and correcting it going forward.”
Jones found more of a rhythm in the third quarter, at one point completing 10 straight passes, but Benkert and company answered following Duke kicker A.J. Reed’s second field goal of the day. An East Carolina transfer, Benkert found Richard Burney for a three-yard touchdown to make the score 27-13 late in the third quarter.
With redshirt senior safety DeVon Edwards out for the season with a torn ACL, Duke was unable to prevent explosive plays. The Cavaliers averaged 14.6 yards per completion as the Blue Devils—who finished with three sacks—struggled to stop Benkert.
“The offensive line did a great job of containing our rush,” sophomore linebacker Ben Humphreys said. “We came into the game ranked [first in the nation in sacks] and they did a great job of containing that early.”
After going down 27-13, the Blue Devils came right back with a three-play drive set up by a 43-yard pass to redshirt junior Quay Chambers—who led Duke with 90 receiving yards. Redshirt junior running back Joseph Ajeigbe punched it in to cut Virginia’s lead to seven with 11:34 left in the game and the Blue Devils had more opportunities to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, but Cavalier All-ACC linebacker Micah Kiser and company took over the rest of the way.
Kiser finished with 18 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss, and the Virginia defense stopped Duke on two fourth downs in Cavalier territory before Jordan Mack came unblocked and leveled Jones to force the Blue Devils’ last turnover. Virginia’s Eli Hanback recovered the loose ball in the end zone for the game-clinching touchdown.
Now below .500 for the second time this season, Duke will look to rebound against Army next Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
“It’s not just about what the response is next week or the week after,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s about the response as to, ‘What’s this mean to you from now on—what’d you learn?’”