Duke football toppled by struggling Virginia on the road, drops second-consecutive conference game

Joshua Pickett (white, 26) swarms a Virginia receiver in Duke's Saturday matchup.
Joshua Pickett (white, 26) swarms a Virginia receiver in Duke's Saturday matchup.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Virginia has come out on the wrong side of five close games this season. Against the Blue Devils, it decided to finish the job. 

Duke couldn’t right the ship from its loss a week ago to North Carolina in Charlottesville Saturday afternoon. The Blue Devils fell to the Cavaliers 30-27 on wide receiver Malik Washington’s record-breaking performance. A battered Duke defense couldn’t limit Virginia’s arsenal of offensive weapons as the Cavaliers moved the ball with ease. 

"I don't think it was about the emotion, I don't think it was about the letdown, I don't think it was about not bouncing back. I think we just didn't play good football," head coach Mike Elko after the game. 

Washington, now the Virginia single-season record holder in both receptions and receiving yards, found himself wide open in the middle of the field on the Cavaliers’ first drive of the second half. The Lawrenceville, Ga., native converted the third-and-11 and then some, taking Anthony Colandrea’s pass 27 yards. The freshman quarterback kept to the air on the next play, connecting with Malachi Fields for 29 yards and a touchdown. Virginia was back on top, and it only took it 1:49 and 65 yards to do it. 

From there, it was all Cavaliers. 

Safety Caleb Hardy picked off Duke freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis (278 passing yards) over the middle, and Virginia rattled off three 17-yard-plus plays (two completions to fields and a rush by Kobe Pace) to get inside the Duke 10-yard line. On third down, Washington struck again, hauling in the touchdown from Colandrea in the back left corner of the end zone. With 6:33 left in the third and a 14-point deficit, the Blue Devils (6-5, 3-4 in the ACC) were nearing desperation. They needed a miracle. 

And then there was Jordan Moore. 

At Monday’s media availability, Elko said: “We're gonna try to find ways to let Jordan Moore impact the football game.” Immediately following the second Virginia touchdown, Moore (117 receiving yards) hauled in a 33-yard reception. He caught two more before sophomore kicker Todd Pelino’s 34-yard field goal, totaling 48 of Duke’s 49 yards on the scoring drive.

It forced a three-and-out after its third-quarter field goal, taking over on its own 31-yard line. Sahmir Hagans found a quick eight yards on a short throw from Loftis, and then Calhoun opened it up. The Southside product took off for 34 yards, the majority of which took place after the catch, putting the Blue Devils on Virginia’s 27-yard line. That’s where they would stay, failing to advance the ball before ushering Pelino on for a 44-yard attempt. The kick was wide left, and the Cavaliers (3-8, 2-5) took over and started marching once more. 

"I don't think we got into rhythm on offense until we got down 27-13," said Elko. 

Virginia would score again before Duke got the ball back, a 21-yard Will Bettridge field goal. Six plays later, Jaquez Moore (100 rushing yards) broke through a crowd on the line of scrimmage for a 58-yard dash down the left sideline, trotting into the end zone. Elko opted to kick the extra point, bringing the score to 27-20 with 9:03 to play in the fourth. Head coach Tony Elliott responded with a 14-play drive that lasted 5:20 and a field goal to extend the lead back to two scores with less than four minutes to play.

With less than four minutes on the clock and no timeouts, Duke set up on its own 25-yard line. Loftis began an inefficient but effective hurry-up drive which culminated in a two-yard Mehki Wall touchdown catch, the first of his career. The Blue Devils couldn’t recover the onside kick this time, ending their comeback bid. 

"We've got to be able to function in the neutral part of the game..." Elko said after the contest. "We've got to be able to operate and function much better so that we don't have to rally from two scores behind in the fourth quarter."

After an imperfect first quarter, Duke was the beneficiary of sloppiness from the Cavaliers. The Blue Devils accepted five Virginia penalties in the second frame, setting the defense up for a stop on third-and-23 on the Cavaliers’ 4-yard line and gifting Loftis and company 15 yards on a crucial third-and-12 on the Duke side of the field. As time wound down in the first half, the Blue Devils kept the ball moving after Virginia’s mistakes, leading to a 29-yard Pelino field goal to tie the game heading into the break

The Cavaliers’ field goal to put them up 10-7 was the product of a 30-yard Colandrea scramble that moved them into Duke territory. It was followed by a seven-yard rush by Mike Hollins, but after that Virginia started to sputter. It couldn’t get past the 27-yard line, setting up a 46-yard attempt for Bettridge that he knocked through with ease. 

With 11 minutes to play in the first half and a 7-0 Virginia lead, Duke was set up with a first-and-goal on the 7-yard line. The drive was propelled by two 15-yard penalties, but the Blue Devils were undeniably on the doorstep. Loftis put one up for Jalon Calhoun in the back left corner of the end zone, and the redshirt senior secured the ball over Hardy, planting his foot in bounds and tying the game for his team after the extra point sailed through. Calhoun’s hands have not been the best this year, but the Greenville, S.C., native made up for it when it mattered. 

Virginia struck first, finding its footing on its second offensive possession. Aided by a 14-yard rush from Hollins, the Cavaliers were set up with first-and-10 on the Duke 34-yard line. Washington beat linebacker Dorian Mausi off the line, finding enough space to cleanly receive the pass from Colandrea and turn upfield, where there was a wide-open lane to the end zone. The catch placed the graduate student at the top of the program’s single-season receiving yard record book, eclipsing Dontayvion Wicks’ 1,203-yard 2021 campaign. With his 112 receiving yards on the day, Washington’s season total is up to 1311 — and the Cavaliers still have one more game to play. 

The home team was helped further when the ever-reliable Jordan Waters committed a rare mistake. Amidst a promising Duke drive, Waters got the carry on a first-and-10 at the Virginia 25-yard line. Knocking on the door of the red zone, the veteran back got the first down, but safety Jonas Sanker punched the ball out, sending it bouncing towards his Cavalier teammates. The fumble was only the third of Waters’ career, and the turnover ended the Blue Devils’ retaliation attempt after the Virginia score.

Duke has one last regular-season opportunity — this time on its home turf — Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh. 

Rachael Kaplan profile
Rachael Kaplan | Sports Managing Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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