On a dreary Saturday afternoon, Virginia had the energy that Duke failed to provide.
In front of a sparse crowd at Wallace Wade Stadium, the Blue Devils looked sluggish, falling to the Cavaliers by a 28-14 margin, as the hosts failed in their first chance to secure a bowl bid. Virginia dominated Duke in every facet of the game, outpacing the Blue Devils in total yards, time of possession and turnovers.
"We really shot ourselves in the foot quite often," offensive lineman Zach Harmon said. "It’s frustrating. You work so hard all week and everyone would tell you we thought we had a great week of preparation. It didn’t really show today.... But props to Virginia. They got off to a hot start and they came ready to play."
Joe Reed set the tone for the Cavaliers (5-2, 3-1 in the ACC), returning the opening kick for 37 yards. The Virginia offense quickly capitalized on the favorable field position with a 23-yard touchdown run from quarterback Bryce Perkins capping an eight-play drive of 61 yards.
The Cavaliers’ second possession began similarly to its first, with a 43-yard punt return from Tavares Kelly giving the offense strong field position again. The Duke defense, however, finally showed some resistance, and the drive ended with an incomplete pass to Tavares Kelly in the end zone.
Duke's offense was lethargic from the start, generating just one first down on its first two series. The sole sign of life in the first quarter came on a deep target to Jarett Garner, who saw his first career target bounce off of his hands and fall to the turf.
Throughout the first half, poor special teams tackling plagued the Blue Devils. A punt return of 27 yards from Chuck Davis allowed Virginia to begin its third drive at Duke's 38-yard line, and Perkins punched in another touchdown to put the Cavaliers up 14-0 in the early part of the second quarter.
On its first four drives, Virginia’s average field position was the Duke 49-yard line, giving the defense little margin for error.
"We still had opportunities to get off the field. It’s on us to execute," Blue Devil linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. "If they put the ball on the one-yard line, we have to defend it."
After two key third-down conversions, there seemed to be hope for the Duke offense. However, quarterback Daniel Jones threw a jump ball towards the end zone into double coverage, and Virginia safety Juan Thornhill came up with the interception, his third off of Jones in the teams’ last two meetings.
Jones has now thrown nine interceptions and just three touchdowns in three matchups against the Cavaliers.
The second half seemed to bring better fortune for the Blue Devils, as they needed just more than a minute to score their first points of the day. Chris Taylor carried the load, with a pair of catches for 60 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive of the half.
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Still, mistakes tormented Duke (5-2, 1-2) nearly all afternoon. In addition to poor tackling on special teams, the Blue Devils' third-down defense and costly penalties were also factors.
Perkins’ mobility allowed him to withstand the Duke pass rush, and as a result, his pass catchers were able to find space against an exhausted Blue Devil secondary. On a third-and-4 in the third quarter, the former Arizona State recruit and junior college transfer scrambled for what seemed to be an eternity, eventually connecting with Jamari Peacock for a gain of 18.
That play eventually led to a Brian Delaney field goal, and Duke would never get closer than six points all afternoon.
"Perkins is a tough guy to tackle, and it all came down to managing him," Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I thought one of their best plays today was a quarterback scramble. I didn’t do well enough responding to that."
Duke’s six penalties were its second-most in a game this season, and the infractions were often boneheaded—the most glaring mistake coming when Javon Jackson received a personal foul for making contact with Cavalier returner Chuck Davis, who called for a fair catch.
Appropriately, the final touchdown of the day, which quashed any hopes of a Blue Devil comeback, came as a result of a long punt return and a scramble. Perkins eluded numerous defenders after starting inside the Duke 30-yard line, eventually finding Evan Butts in the end zone.
The loss essentially eliminates the Blue Devils from contention for the ACC Coastal crown. They now sit two games behind first-place Virginia Tech with matchups at Miami and No. 3 Clemson still to come.
"When you take another ACC team and you make it easier for them, which is what occurred, it falls on the head coach," Cutcliffe said. "We won’t react to this, we will respond to this."