CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — After his team’s fifth straight loss, usually loquacious head coach David Cutcliffe issued a terse opening statement.
“We left way too many plays on the field to win a ball game,” he said. “When you do that, it’s going to slip through your fingers, so it’s kind of as simple as that.”
Those plays cost Duke (3-7, 1-5 in the ACC) any chance it had of making its first bowl game since 1994 as the Blue Devils fell to Virginia 31-21 in an intensely physical game. The loss—and the painful reality that this was just one of four losses in which the team had a realistic shot to win in the fourth quarter—overshadowed Donovan Varner’s record-setting day. Varner, who caught seven passes for 132 yards and a touchdown, broke Clarkston Hines’s Duke record of 189 career receptions. Varner also tied his former receivers’ coach Scottie Montgomery by making a catch in his 35th consecutive game.
“It means a lot to me,” Varner said of breaking Hines’s record. “But it’s a bittersweet moment because we lost a tough game.... It definitely hurts because all I’ve dreamed of since a freshman is going to a bowl game, and I never got a chance to get there.”
In a game marred by visible verbal sparring and physical confrontations after the whistle, which Cutcliffe euphemistically called “extracurriculars,” the Cavaliers (7-3, 4-2) were able to beat Duke at the line of scrimmage. They shut down the Blue Devils’ rushing attack and powered for 165 yards of their own on the ground. Although Virginia registered only one sack, the Cavaliers’ prowess at the line of scrimmage was evident in the passing game as well, as quarterback Sean Renfree faced consistent pressure in the pocket.
“We had a number of injuries early,” Cutcliffe said. “[Starting left tackle] Kyle Hill, I will mention, was a significant injury, and he will be out for the season.”
Hill’s absence was particularly noticeable on one of the game’s pivotal plays as the Cavaliers’ Cam Johnson was able to beat backup tackle Takoby Cofield on the edge and force Renfree to throw off his back foot on a play-action pass to Desmond Scott. Chris Minnifield read the throw and was able to cut in front of the pass and take his interception all the way for the score, giving Virginia a 21-14 lead.
Although Duke was able to strike back on the ensuing possession, the Blue Devils had lost an opportunity to retake the lead and build momentum. After the Blue Devils’ offense tied the game, however, the defense—which was without second-leading tackler Kelby Brown—began to wear down. It surrendered points on Virginia’s next two possessions giving the Cavaliers a ten-point lead. Still, the offense had chances, but dropped passes and a missed field goal prevented Duke from closing the gap.
“I thought there was a period we got a little tired,” Cutcliffe said of the defense’s second-half struggles. “It wasn’t any big breakdown. It was just a matter of being where you’ve got to be.... I’m not talking about just offense [that missed out on opportunities to make big plays]. Both sides of the ball you leave some plays on the field, and you get beat.”