For the first time all season, the tight end was the most important player on the field for Duke, as it held off an aggressive Virginia squad to clinch its third-straight year of bowl eligibility.
Led by a pair of touchdown catches from their two tight ends, the Blue Devils defeated the Cavaliers 20-13 for a Homecoming victory. The win improves Duke to 2-1 in the ACC and hands Virginia its first conference loss of the season. The win now puts the Blue Devils atop the ACC Coastal Division and will send them to a bowl game for the third consecutive year, a first in the program's history,
"I hadn’t even thought about it and that’s as honest as I can be," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "In my mind it’s a huge ACC win and I’m totally focused on ACC football and that’s all I really wanted to think about."
After being held out of the end zone for the entirety of the second and third quarters, Duke regained its footing in the fourth quarter. With 10:26 remaining in the game, the Blue Devils would turn to running back Shaquille Powell. The junior rushed for 32 of his 68 total yards on the drive, which started at Duke's 35-yard line. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Thomas Sirk would cap the 65-yard drive, as he found tight end David Reeves wide open in the middle of the end zone on a jump-pass for the go-ahead score with 7:23 left in the game. The score was also set up by a 23-yard carry from starting quarterback Anthony Boone, who finished the afternoon with 176 yards and a score on 22-of-37 passing.
"All of our backs are good backs, but [Powell] ran with an incredible purpose today, almost possessed at times," Cutcliffe said. "I was so happy for him with all that he’s got going on with his personal life back home. That was as good of a story as there is in football. Anthony, even wavering a little bit and missing some throws, just all of a sudden out of nowhere was able to right the ship."
Things got off to a hot start for the Blue Devils (6-1, 2-1 in the ACC), as redshirt junior safety Jeremy Cash kickstarted Duke's momentum once again Saturday, stripping Virginia's Miles Gooch on the second play from scrimmage. Defensive end Jonathan Jones jumped on the ball to cap the Cavaliers' (4-3, 2-1) opening drive and give Duke the ball at its own 38-yard line. The turnover was the sixth of the year that Cash has been a part of, as he has now registered three forced fumbles, two interceptions and one fumble recovery.
Boone and the offense would not take long to make Virginia pay, as he hit receiver Jamison Crowder for 27 yards on Duke's first offensive play of the game. Six plays later, the Weddington, N.C., native found junior tight end Erich Schneider in the end zone to take the early 7-0 lead.
Defensively, Duke's secondary—which has been the Blue Devils' strongest defensive unit this season—struggled all afternoon. Johns torched them for 306 yards and a score, the most yards they have allowed all season. But despite his success through the air, Virginia also struggled to punch it in the end zone, settling for two field goals after its initial touchdown. Cornerback Breon Borders led the Duke effort, registering three of the team's 10 total pass breakups.
"Our players did a phenomenal job of just bowing their backs. How many broken up passes there were in the game?" Cutcliffe said. "They were successful throwing the ball. He didn’t miss many targets. We had to knock the ball away to create an incompletion. That’s really hard to do as often as we did"
After Duke took a 10-0 lead on a Ross Martin field goal with 12:24 left in the second quarter, Virginia would answer by driving 75 yards on its next series to close the gap to 10-7. The Cavaliers punched it in on Johns' five-yard strike to running back Khalek Shepherd. With 2:15 left in the half, Virginia, which had stalled at the Blue Devil 35-yard line, decided to attempt a 52-yard field goal try to tie the game. Kicker Ian Frye missed the field goal but Duke could do nothing with the resulting good field position, going three-and-out and punting the ball back to the Cavaliers.
Johns—who was filling in for injured starter Greyson Lambert—led Virginia 85 yards to the Duke one-yard line. Frye would close out the half by tying the score with a 21-yard field goal. He would tack on another three points with a 30-yard field in the third quarter.
Following last week's impressive showing against then-No. 22 Georgia Tech, the Duke offense seemed to have regained its momentum heading into the Homecoming clash. But a Virginia defense that allows just 91.5 yards per game—good for sixth in the nation—did not make things easy for the Blue Devils.
Against the Yellow Jackets, Duke rushed for 242 yards and three scores. That was not the case against the Cavaliers, as they held the Blue Devils in check all afternoon. Duke—which entered the game averaging 228.5 yards on the ground per contest—was held to 155 yards on 30 carries on the afternoon.
"[Virginia] came off a bye week so they all had fresh legs, and they were dwindling them down and getting them tired throughout the game," Powell said. "Coming into the second half I had fresh legs from not playing the last game and the first half, I think I made a difference. We play such a fast tempo in our offense and we have such good stamina on both sides of our team, and I think it really makes a difference."
The Blue Devils will have their second bye week of the season this upcoming week before hitting the road to take on Pittsburgh Nov. 1 at Heinz Field.
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