CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.—Cavaliers fight with swords, but Saturday, Duke experienced a nuclear warhead.
The Blue Devils were shut out by Virginia 48-0 Saturday at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va. The game was defined by missed opportunities and sluggish play by the Blue Devils from start to finish, with a missed chip-shot field goal in the first quarter setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon. By the end of the game, Virginia had dominated Duke thanks to the Brennan Armstrong-led pass attack, which proved way too much for the Blue Devils to contain.
This game, unlike the loss against Georgia Tech, was not a matter of poor play-calling. All who watched it witnessed a play-making collapse as Duke’s top players combined for an anemic performance that failed to do damage even after Virginia’s offense slowed to start the second half.
"These are the times you start wondering if the sun's gonna rise, but it does," head coach David Cutcliffe said.
Duke’s key to victory was containing Armstrong and the Wahoos’ passing game, but Armstrong and the Virginia offense started out as potent as they looked during a 17-point comeback against Louisville last week. The seemingly positionless offense generated an open man on nearly every play, as the Cavaliers accumulated 296 passing yards in the first half alone.
With wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks back from getting knocked out of two straight games with head injuries, he served a critical role for the always-moving Virginia offense. The sophomore racked up 125 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions when it was all said and done. The Cavaliers’ top receiver in terms of yardage caught several of his passes right in the holes in Duke’s zone defense along the sideline.
But it wasn’t Wicks alone who ran all over the Duke secondary, as wide receiver Billy Kemp and tight end Jelani Woods collected six and five catches of their own, respectively.
On the other side, quarterback Gunnar Holmberg threw the ball 34 times compared to only 17 Durant rush attempts. Though not surprising considering the 43 carries Durant lugged a week ago, the passing game fell apart after the Blue Devils’ first drive.
"You know, having three and outs is tough, tough on the defense and tough on us to really get any type of rhythm for the game," Holmberg said. "Just take it one play at a time because if you start thinking about it too much that's when you try to force things and then the game starts to really slip from your fingers."
After going 5-for-7 on the first drive, Holmberg went 6-for-15 with two interceptions for the rest of the first half. While Virginia hadn’t punted the ball until 11:21 in the third, Duke—following the red zone drive—failed to reach the Virginia half of the field until over nine minutes into the third period.
The Blue Devils (3-4, 0-3 in the ACC) initially fell behind early in part due to their own miscues—a missed field goal, a dropped interception and numerous penalties extended multiple Virginia drives and had the Blue Devils looking lifeless on both sides by halftime in a game that would have halted the now seven-game losing streak against Virginia (5-2, 3-2).
"We together have to accomplish what we've got to accomplish to get back on a winning track," Cutcliffe added. "You don't play Power Five football unless you're a fierce competitor. So that balance always remains. [Losing] should hurt. And it should make you hungrier, but not stressed."
The first Duke drive on offense was by no means a poor drive for Holmberg and company, as senior running back Mataeo Durant collected multiple 20-plus yard runs to bring the Blue Devils to the Virginia six-yard line. It looked as if Duke’s offense was in business, but ultimately stalled short of the end zone.
After making a switch at special teams due to Charlie Ham’s missed field goals last week, Duke sent out graduate student Matt Alswanger to kick a 25-yarder to try to tie the game 3-3, only for him to nail the left upright on his first attempt as a Blue Devil.
Duke was not without its fair share of chances to swing the tides after the missed field goal, however, as an Armstrong pass intended for Kemp with 6:37 left in the first looked like it was going to be taken back for a Duke touchdown by Jeremiah Lewis. The junior couldn’t hold on and Kemp hauled in the tipped ball to send the Cavaliers into the red zone for the second time in as many possessions.
Just moments later, Virginia scored its first of six touchdowns. The dropped interception only added on to Duke’s long list of defensive issues to deal with this season. Even when the ball hit the turf on four Virginia fumbles, no white jerseys were able to scoop it up and halt the drive.
On the next Virginia drive, two quick plays set up a third down and short that resulted in a Gary Smith III sack. It seemed as if Duke had its chance to get back in it with the offense. As the booming punt sailed toward the end zone for a touchback, yellow flags flew in the backfield as wide receiver Darrell Harding Jr., collided at full speed into the punter to pick up a roughing the kicker call that gave Virginia a fresh set of downs.
Wide receiver Keytaon Thompson caught a 19-yard pass from Armstrong and refused to go down, taking it to the last hash before paydirt. The versatile senior then carried it in for Virginia’s second touchdown. From that point on, Duke had nothing to show and punted or turned the ball over on every possession for the rest of the game for its first shutout since its 48-0 loss Dec. 5, 2020 against Miami.
Virginia, up 41-0 entering the fourth, gave its starters a rest and added another score, something Duke could not do over 60 minutes of getting torpedoed.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.