CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Duke’s 35-22 comeback win against Virginia was a tale of two defenses.
In five of their seven games so far this season, the Blue Devils have surrendered more points in the first half than the second half. Duke fared no differently against Virginia, allowing the Cavaliers to score 22 in the first before shutting them out in the second.
“Some guys, you could see their heads were going down a little bit,” redshirt senior defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “But then you had senior leaders… walking around and saying, ‘You know who we are and you know what we do.’ We’ve practiced, we are Duke and we finish games and that’s exactly what we decided [to do].”
Virginia ran all over the Blue Devils during the first 30 minutes, accumulating 280 yards of offense, including 187 passing yards. Quarterback David Watford went 13-for-23 in the air, continuously finding holes in Duke’s defense—most notably, his 13-yard completion to a wide-open Kevin Parks for a touchdown. The tailback ran untouched down the middle of the field, only to front flip into the end zone over a pile of Blue Devils to give Virginia a 20-0 lead. The Cavaliers added a two-point conversion to cushion their lead to 22 points.
Duke's defense also committed sloppy penalties during the first half, including a holding charge on Garett Patterson that negated a momentum-changing interception by Ross Cockrell in the first quarter. Another holding charge hurt the Blue Devils a few minutes later, when the Cavaliers were faced with third-and-goal on Duke’s 6-yard line. The penalty allowed Parks to sneak into the end zone on the next play.
“The penalties are always going to hurt," redshirt senior Ross Cockrell said. “Whenever you go backward, it hurts and it takes away your momentum. This game has a lot of ebbs and flows, and you always want to be moving in the right direction.”
The Blue Devils turned the defensive effort around in the second half.
Extra pressure on Watford during the third quarter forced him to rely more heavily on his running game, completing only 2-of-4 passes for a meager 30 yards. On the ground, Virginia accumulated -23 rush yards, due in part to a Corbin McCarthy sack on Watford for a loss of 11 yards, and a Watford fumble for a loss of 15.
The Cavalier offense was unable to recover in the fourth quarter, closing out the game with only 76 yards of offense in the second half.
“I felt like they knew we were going to run the football, so they put people on the line and blitzed a lot,” Parks said. “I felt like they were trying to stop the run and make us throw. We didn’t make enough plays.”
Like the Blue Devils in the first half, many of Virginia’s late struggles were because of penalties. After committing only one penalty in the first half, the Cavaliers incurred five in the second half. Duke’s defense put pressure on Virginia, forcing two penalties on the Cavaliers’ opening drive of the third quarter. Although Watford was unable to convert on subsequent third-and-35 and fourth-and-12 situations, the Blue Devils reached the end zone on their next drive off a 6-yard Brandon Connette run to make the score 22-17.
“[The defense] made a few tweaks here and there, but overall it was all about mentality,” Anunike said. “The defensive line got more stout, we had more guys in lock-down coverage, [Watford] is fast… but we just went out there and said we were going to dominate, and it became all mentality so that’s what we did.”
After possessing the ball for 19:18 during the first half, the Cavaliers held the ball for just 12:15 in the second half against a stout Duke defense—and those extra seven minutes gave the Blue Devil offense time to reclaim the lead.
Connette gave the Blue Devils the advantage for good in the fourth quarter with a 47-yard touchdown pass to tight end Braxton Deaver. Another Deaver touchdown catch seven minutes later, this time from Anthony Boone for 24 yards, sealed the deal for Duke.
Second-half defensive redemption has been an all-too-familiar storyline for Duke during the 2013 season.
In its most extreme case, the Blue Devils changed their defensive game plan after struggling mightily in the first half against Pittsburgh. Duke's defense surrendered 37 points and 598 yards of offense to the Panthers in the first half before allowing only 14 points and 130 yards in the final two quarters. Unlike their matchup against the Cavaliers, however, the Blue Devils were unable to secure a victory, falling 58-55.
More recently, after leading Troy by two touchdowns during the second quarter, Duke allowed the Trojans to tie the game at 28 less than two minutes into the third quarter. But led by redshirt sophomore safety Jeremy Cash, who registered 14 tackles and added an interception, the Blue Devils held Troy to only a field goal and went on to win 38-31.
Cutcliffe emphasized that Duke cannot rely on strong second-half performances to carry it to its second consecutive bowl game, especially with strong opponents to close the season.
“Today we played a terrific second half, but are we going to come back tomorrow hungrier and ready to prepare?” he said. “[Winning] is not an accident, it’s work and it’s planning, and [the players] have to participate. Hopefully this grows that. That’s what you want to see from wins like this."