CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.— For the last two games since a last-second loss to Miami, Duke has been in a funk, making costly mistakes and failing to take advantage of opportunities.
Little changed Saturday against Virginia through the first three quarters, and a fourth-quarter rally fell one score short.
Parker Boehme’s pass into the end zone was broken up on fourth-and-two as the Blue Devils suffered a fourth straight defeat with a 42-34 loss to the Cavaliers Saturday at Scott Stadium. Similar to their last three performances, the Blue Devils fell into an early hole and could not dig their way out despite late fourth-quarter heroics by Boehme. Both sides of the ball struggled—Duke’s offense gave up three turnovers and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ unit surrendered 502 total yards.
“We found a way to be in a position to win a game that maybe we shouldn’t have. We had turnovers. We had penalties. We had false starts by receivers. Those things stop drives. We missed explosive opportunities. We gave up explosives. It’s just fundamental things that well-coached teams won’t and can’t do,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I’m proud of our team for responding. At the end of the day, you can’t get behind.”
As has been the case throughout this season, it was an afternoon of unfinished drives and mistakes for redshirt junior quarterback Thomas Sirk and the Duke offense.
On the game’s first drive, the Blue Devils (6-5, 3-4 in the ACC) drove 42 yards before failing to convert on one of their best chances of the night. Senior wide receiver Max McCaffrey found himself running wide open behind the Cavaliers’ secondary, but Sirk—back under center after a one-game absence due to injury—overthrew him on a flea-flicker. Virginia (4-7, 3-4) quickly capitalized off of Duke’s missed opportunity, capping an 80-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus to Evan Butts on a double-pass trick play of their own.
After the Blue Devils stalled on their second drive, Virginia extended its lead to 14 points with a 45-yard pass from quarterback Matt Johns to David Eldridge and a 26-yard rushing touchdown by T.J. Thorpe. Although Duke initially had Thorpe bottled up, he found a small hole and navigated his way to the end zone.
Virginia’s receivers consistently found separation from the Blue Devil secondary, and Duke’s defensive line failed to generate any pressure on Johns. The Cavalier rushing attack, which contributed 143 yards, also took advantage of poor tackling by the Blue Devils.
“If you don’t tackle well in this league, you’re going to give up yards,” Cutcliffe said.
Late in the first quarter, another Duke mistake led to points for Virginia. After recovering a fumble by Boehme—who came in for a first-quarter series to briefly spell Sirk—the Cavaliers went up 21 thanks to a three-yard rushing touchdown by running back Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, who added two more scores on the afternoon.
Redshirt junior safety DeVon Edwards gave Duke its first points at the end of the period with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown—his third of the season and is one shy of the ACC record with six career returns.
“Any score on special teams is big,” Edwards said. “That brings a lot of excitement to the team. Coming off a kick return, usually we start getting a lot of momentum”
Saturday’s return was no different. After an interception by junior cornerback Breon Borders in the red zone, the Blue Devils added a 36-yard field goal by Ross Martin to cut the Virginia lead to 11.
But toward the end of the second quarter, the Cavaliers recaptured control of the game. Virginia responded with a 36-yard passing touchdown from quarterback Matt Johns to Mizzell, and the Blue Devil offense settled for another field goal to end the half.
The third quarter was an extension of the first half. A fumble by running back Jela Duncan on a 15-yard rush on Duke’s opening drive led to another Mizzell touchdown. From then on, the Blue Devils did not have enough time to stick with the running game and finished with just 100 rushing yards—54 of which came from Sirk and Boehme.
“I thought we could run the ball between the tackles,” Cutcliffe said. “And we come out and we turn the ball over running the ball well. If you’re going to turn the ball over, you’re going to put yourself behind the eight-ball. You can’t start both halves the way we started with either turnovers or missed opportunities.”
The Blue Devils tried to mount a comeback when Sirk—who finished 22-of-34 for 207 yards—capped a 67-yard drive with a seven-yard touchdown to senior tight end Braxton Deaver.
But it was too little too late as Duke’s defensive struggles continued and redshirt senior safety Jeremy Cash was ejected for targeting. Johns completed a 50-yard bomb to Zaccheaus soon afterward to extend Virginia’s lead to 22 points.
The Blue Devils added two late touchdowns in the fourth quarter to reduce their deficit. Boehme took over under center and the offense suddenly found a rhythm, scoring 14 points on back-to-back 69- and 68-yard drives before the night’s end.
Boehme established a rapport with Rahming, who finished with 190 yards and a touchdown and reeled in multiple passes of more than 40 yards.
“[Sirk and Boehme are] both resilient,” Cutcliffe said. “They both have big accurate arms. I want them to be more consistent, more consistent down the field.”
Duke will try to close the regular season on a high note when they face Wake Forest on the road Saturday at 12:30 p.m.