Conner Vernon broke the ACC record for career receptions and had seven catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns in Duke's win.
Conner Vernon broke the ACC record for career receptions and had seven catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns in Duke's win.

At the onset of the fourth quarter, with Duke up 28-17, senior wide receiver Conner Vernon dove and pulled down a 45-yard bomb through double coverage for a touchdown. The play was an exclamation point on an already memorable win in which Duke moved within one game of bowl eligibility and Vernon became the ACC’s all-time leader in receptions.

Led by Anthony Boone’s four touchdown passes and timely defensive stops, Duke defeated Virginia 42-17 Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. With the win, the Blue Devils (5-1, 2-0 in the ACC) are off to their best start since 1994—the last time they reached a bowl game.

“We had a good time in the locker room [after the game],” head Coach David Cutcliffe said. “But before we broke apart in the locker room, I heard them—I didn’t say anything-— heard them talking about going back to work tomorrow. I heard them talking about how we’ve got to build on this. That’s a fire you want them to catch.”

The first quarter was a shootout, with both teams quickly getting on the scoreboard and driving down the field with ease. While Duke relied more on big plays, Virginia’s touchdown drives were calculated and efficient.

On the game’s opening drive, the Cavaliers marched 83 yards down the field. Alabama-transfer Phillip Sims was making his first career start at quarterback for Virginia, and the sophomore was able to connect with E.J. Scott twice for 45 yards. Kevin Parks capped the drive with a seven-yard touchdown run, strolling into the end zone with relative ease.

Duke was quick to respond. Boone, also making his first career start at quarterback due to Sean Renfree’s injury, rolled out of the pocket on his third play from scrimmage and hit a wide-open Jamison Crowder for a 54-yard touchdown.

With the game tied at seven, Duke’s defense helped build momentum as Tony Foster recorded his first career interception on a pass from Sims.

On the ensuing drive, Vernon made history. After tying the ACC all-time receptions record last week against Wake Forest Vernon broke the record of 232, previously held by Clemson’s Aaron Kelly, with a quick completion for a loss of two yards. Vernon finished the game with seven catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns.

“I couldn’t be more happy and proud of Conner Vernon,” Cutcliffe said. “It couldn’t have happened to a better young man who has been incredible on and off the field for Duke University… He broke the record on not so flashy a play, but 42-17 took care of that. I told him that’s pretty flashy, winning in that fashion.”

On the following play after a penalty, Boone looked deep to Vernon and hit him with a pass at the goal line. Vernon used his body to create space, clutched the ball to his chest, and stumbled into the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown.

FIVE KEY PLAYS: HOW DUKE BEAT VIRGINIA


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“The day I stepped on campus at Duke, I never thought I’d be the all-time leader in receptions,” Vernon said. “It’s just a blessing. I’m forever thankful to Duke, coach Cut and Dr. White for bringing me to this university. If I had to do it again, I would do it. Not a doubt in my mind.”

Virginia (2-4, 0-2) countered with a balanced 86-yard touchdown drive. Perry Jones, who rushed for 95 yards in the first half, evened the score at 14 by leaping into the end zone from the goal line.

In stark contrast to the first 15 minutes, the second quarter saw little offense as both teams combined for nine punts. Neither team generated any kind of offensive rhythm, and the first points of the quarter came when Virginia hit a field goal to take a 17-14 lead as time wound off the clock. But that field goal would be the final time the Cavaliers would put points on the scoreboard.

Despite the close score going into the half, Virginia dominated most offensive categories through two quarters of play, holding the ball for eight more minutes than Duke. The Cavaliers compiled 386 yards of total offense compared to the Blue Devils’ 186 yards, and they had twice as many first downs with 18.

After Duke and Virginia opened the second half with punts, a 25-yard punt return by Vernon sparked the Duke offense. On first down from Virginia’s 12-yard line, Boone checked down from his primary target and found an open Juwan Thompson cutting left for the touchdown.

Leading 21-17, Duke never relinquished that lead due to a suffocating defensive effort. On the following drive, the Cavaliers faced a fourth-and-one and decided to go for it despite still being in their own territory. In a definitive defensive statement, senior Duke defensive back Walt Canty—who after the game admitted that his decision to blitz was improvised—charged into the backfield and nailed Kevin Parks for a loss.

Duke took over on downs and established its running game. Freshman Jela Duncan carried the ball four times on the next drive for 30 yards, complete with an 11-yard touchdown run that built the lead to 28-17.

Vernon’s second touchdown catch in the beginning of the fourth quarter showcased Boone’s precision downfield. Boone, who had to deal with the uncertainty of Renfree being a game-time decision, finished with four touchdowns on 18-of-31 passing for 212 yards.

“I think Anthony grew up a lot today,” Vernon said. “Today he put 42 points up on the scoreboard. You can’t really ask for much more in your quarterback.”

After Vernon’s second touchdown catch put Duke up 35-17, any chance of a Virginia comeback was shut down by the stifling defense. In the second half, the Blue Devils only allowed four yards rushing, 140 yards of total offense and five first downs.

When Juwan Thompson broke free for a 34-yard touchdown run with 2:48 seconds left in the game, it was more like a victory parade.