CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—In each of its last five games, Duke went on an unanswered scoring run of 24 points or more to put the game away or make a furious comeback.
After an ugly offensive first half in which Duke totaled just 73 yards, the Blue Devils went to the locker room facing a 17-0 deficit, desperately needing one of its patented scoring flurries to compete in a critical conference contest.
But Saturday afternoon it was Virginia that scored 24 points in the third quarter to extend its lead to 41-7, putting the game out of reach.
Things utterly fell apart in that third quarter, which was doomed from the get-go—literally. The very first play from scrimmage became a disaster when Deon Jackson coughed up the football on a bad exchange at the Duke 21-yard line, which quickly became three more points for the Cavaliers.
Turnovers were a common theme for the Blue Devils, as quarterback Quentin Harris sailed a pass well over his receiver’s head for an interception while also losing a fumble on a blind side hit. The offense simply could not string together first downs with mistake after mistake.
“Staying on the field offensively and staying off the field defensively is what it comes down to,” Harris said. “Definitely, we have to continue to convert on third downs to keep drives alive and then, defensively, we need to find ways to get off the field sometimes as well. It doesn’t help the defense when we put them in bad situations with turnovers.”
Defensively, Duke simply could not stop the two-headed monster of quarterback Bryce Perkins and running back Wayne Taulapapa, who each rushed for a touchdown in the quarter. The two accounted for all five offensive touchdowns for the Cavaliers, with Perkins doing his damage on the ground with three rushing touchdowns. Rather than big plays, Virginia largely relied on methodically driving down the field.
“They didn’t do anything differently [in the third quarter],” Blue Devils safety Dylan Singleton said. “We just didn’t make the plays we needed to make.”
Even special teams was a mixed bag for the Blue Devils. Ironically, a mishandled snap on a punt proved to spark the offense as punter Austin Parkers scampered for a fourth-down conversion. His speed inspired Duke to call for a fake punt the next time around, which became yet another first down on the Blue Devils’ lone touchdown drive to make it 27-7.
However, any chance for a comeback was immediately dashed on the ensuing kickoff, as Virginia speedster Joe Reed returned the football 95 yards to the house.
The play, in which multiple players could not get off their blocks or make a tackle, was emblematic of a dejected team that lacked energy. With the offense sputtering, the defense looked worn down as it stayed on the field for long periods at a time. The Cavaliers dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 34:29.
“Here’s the thing that has to be repaired the most: blocking and tackling, period,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “No matter what you run, no matter what you call offensively, inside or outside, we did not consistently block. Not a schematic issue—just didn’t get it done.”
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While the first half was ugly, the game was clearly lost in the third quarter, a large part of which consisted of the Blue Devils shooting themselves in the foot. While Duke appeared to be stunned, particularly considering the implications of the match for the ACC Coastal division, Virginia took advantage and never looked back.
“Certainly, I have to give Virginia some credit, but a big part of this was malfunction on our part,” Cutcliffe said. “People are going to ask, ‘What are you going to do?’ You practice football. You also try to heal people emotionally.”
With the Blue Devils heading over to North Carolina next week in the battle for the Victory Bell, that emotional healing needs to come quickly for Cutcliffe’s squad if it hopes to stay competitive in the division.