By Jeff White
DURHAM, N.C. — After a football game in which the teams combine to score 103 points, gain 1,132 yards and pick up 59 first downs, it may be foolish to single out one play as the most critical.
The fact remains, though, that with the scoreboard showing 1:15 to play and UVa leading 48-47, the Duke Blue Devils faced fourth-and-20 from their 21-yard line. They were out of timeouts. If Virginia held, the game effectively would be over.
One stop. That’s all the Wahoos needed Saturday afternoon at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Alas, they didn’t get it, and so they lost a third straight game to Duke for the first time since the 1970s.
On fourth down, against a UVa defense that had sacked him on the previous two plays, sophomore quarterback Sean Renfree hooked up with wideout Donovan Varner on a 32-yard completion, on a seam pattern, and the Devils had new life.
“It’s disheartening and discouraging that one play gets you off the field, and you can’t capitalize on that,” said Virginia’s first-year coach, Mike London.
Three plays later, UVa’s defense broke down for the final time, allowing tailback Desmond Scott to run 35 yards for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in Duke’s heart-stopping 55-48 victory before 22,741 at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Before Saturday, Virginia had never scored more than 38 points in a loss.
“I’ve been a part of emotional and dramatic games, but I don’t really think I’ve ever been part of a shootout in the 40s and 50s range,” quarterback Marc Verica said. “That was a first for me, but you just gotta be ready to respond when your number’s called, and I think we did that in most cases. But we didn’t win.
“We got some good production. We scored a lot of points and we gained a lot of yards, but it’s a tough pill to swallow when you don’t come out with the victory. But this is a team game and it’s a team effort, and we lose as a team and we win as a team. That doesn’t change, and today we lost as a team.”
On an afternoon when much went right for the ‘Hoos (1-4, 4-5), especially on offense, more things went wrong. Verica, a fifth-year senior, passed for a school-record 417 yards and a career-high 4 touchdowns. But he also threw 3 interceptions, and Duke (1-4, 3-6) turned those turnovers into 16 points.
Led by Verica, senior wideout Dontrelle Inman, senior tailback Keith Payne and sophomore tailback Perry Jones, the Cavaliers gained 643 yards. But they allowed 489, 91 of which came on Duke’s final drive. The 55 points were the most scored against UVa since Illinois’ 63-21 romp in the 1999 Micronpc.com Bowl.
Virginia compounded its problems with a disturbing lack of discipline. The ‘Hoos were penalized 11 times for 103 yards. (Duke, by contrast, was flagged three times for 20 yards.)
“It’s frustrating, and we gotta fix it,” London said. “I gotta do a better job myself.”
UVa punted only once Saturday. Duke punted twice. The Devils’ total would have been higher, but on the game’s opening possession, a late hit by UVa cornerback Mike Parker on Renfree, who had been sacked on a third-and-13 play, resulted in an automatic first down.
The drive ended when Renfree passed to wideout Cooper Helfet, who’d beaten safety Corey Mosley, for a 30-yard touchdown.
Less than a minute later, UVa’s deficit doubled. On third-and-7 from Virginia’s 14, Verica attempted an ill-advised pass that cornerback Ross Cockrell picked off and returned to the 2. Backup quarterback Brandon Connette, whose running bedeviled the ‘Hoos all afternoon, scored on the next play.
“They started the game fast,” London said. “Before you knew it they were up 14-0. And you can’t go away, into someone else’s house, and start a game like that.”
Virginia fought back. The first of Keith Payne’s 3 TDs — followed by the first of junior Robert Randolph’s 6 extra points — made it 14-7 with 6:32 left in the first quarter.
It was 21-7 when Randolph lined up for an apparent 37-yard field goal attempt. Instead, an exquisite piece of deception unfolded. Danny Aiken’s snap went to holder Jacob Hodges — a former team manager — who flipped the ball back over his head. Randolph, running to his right, caught it in stride and then outraced stunned Duke defenders to the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown.
Randolph wasn’t through. He added the extra point to make it 21-14 with 5:57 left in the half.
“We’re trying to work on anything and everything we can to try to give us any opportunity to score points or move the chains,” London said. “If there are opportunities that are presented … you try to exploit some of those situations.
“Why not? Let’s hang it out on the line.”
At halftime, Duke led 24-21, but UVa held commanding leads in total offense (323 yards to 184) and first downs (17 to 9). Turnovers were the difference to that point. Verica’s mistakes marred an otherwise-splendid performance by the team’s oft-criticized quarterback.
“You can’t throw interceptions,” London said. “It’s great that he sets the school record for passing, but the scoreboard reads what it does. So obviously from that position you’ve got to play better and can’t make those mistakes.”
In the third quarter, a 19-yard TD pass from Verica to junior wideout Kris Burd gave UVa its first lead. But Duke answered with 16 straight points to go up 40-28 with about 12 minutes to play.
It was still a 12-point game, 47-35, after the teams traded fourth-quarter touchdowns. But Virginia closed to 47-42 on Verica’s 10-yard pass to Inman and then forced a fumble on Duke’s next possession. Linebacker Steve Greer slammed into Scott, and the ball popped loose. Defensive tackle Nick Jenkins recovered, and UVa, trailing 47-41, had possession at the Devils’ 28 with 3:55 to play.
Against a hapless Duke defense, the 6-3, 255-pound Payne needed only four carries to reach the end zone, gaining 9, 2, 11 and, finally, 6 yards to put UVa ahead 48-47.
That “drive” lasted all of 89 seconds. London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor wanted to see more time come off the clock, but Duke didn’t cooperate.
“We didn’t go fast,” Lazor said, “and the reality is, Keith broke a tackle to score. There’s no guarantee you’re going to score on the next play. He ran hard, we blocked them well, and that’s happened.”
Payne finished with a career-high 121 yards on 22 carries and also had the first TD reception of his college career. Inman had 10 catches for 239 yards, both career highs. Inman needed only 2 more yards receiving to match UVa’s single-game record set by Ken Shelton against William and Mary in 1974.
“It’s a shame,” London said, that Virginia didn’t win on a day when Inman and Payne and others played so well.
“But as I said, the individual records, that’s all good and dandy, I think the guys would say, but what matters is on the scoreboard, what happens at the end of the game.”
“It’s the most difficult feeling on this planet to lose that way,” he said. “So many ups and downs, you know … Just like a roller coaster. That’s how this game really felt.”
Verica said he didn’t know he’d broken Matt Schaub’s record for passing yards in a game (393 against N.C. State in 2003) until a reporter told him after the game.
“I don’t play for numbers and stats,” Verica said. “I play for wins. I’m just disappointed. I know there more plays to be made out there.”
After Scott’s TD, which came as UVa scrambled to get defensive players on the field, the offense got the ball back one last time. Fifty-eight yards from the end zone, the Cavaliers had all three timeouts left and 33 seconds to try to tie the game.
Their 11th penalty moved them back 5 yards, but a 23-yard completion from Verica to Inman advanced the ‘Hoos to the Duke 40 with 17 seconds left. They got no further, as Verica’s final three passes fell incomplete.
“It’s a tough deal,” London said. “It’s a tough game, to lose a game like that when you’re fighting back and forth and you had so many opportunities.”
SHORT-HANDED: For most of the game, Virginia played without its top two cornerbacks, senior Ras-I Dowling and junior Chase Minnifield. Both had been listed as questionable on the injury report UVa released Thursday night.
Dowling, who has been dealing with hamstring and knee injuries, didn’t play at all. Minnifield, who intercepted two passes last weekend in Virginia’s upset of ACC rival Miami, tested his sore ankle Saturday but played only a couple of series.
“You gotta play with who you’ve got,” London said.
Asked what had happened on Duke’s 32-yard completion on fourth-and-20 late in the game, London said he needed to review the videotape to “see if it was a coverage issue or it was a personnel issue.”
Verica said: “The game is never over until it’s over, and that’s why there’s four downs. The offense gets another chance on fourth down to make a play, and they made a great play on it. You gotta give them credit, too.”
RISING STAR: True freshman Morgan Moses, who had started the previous three games at right offensive tackle, started at right guard against Duke.
That’s because tackle Landon Bradley, who had missed three games with a broken hand, was back in the lineup. Bradley left the game early in the second quarter, however, and Moses moved back to right tackle, with senior B.J. Cabbell taking over at right guard.
“I don’t know that people understand how hard it is and what an unbelievable job Morgan Moses is doing,” Lazor said. “To be a true freshman, first of all, just playing in the ACC. Second of all, to play both guard and tackle, not only in the same season, but in the same game, mentally is unbelievable, and I’m really impressed with Morgan. I appreciate his efforts and how hard he’s working at it. He’s really a special guy.”
UP NEXT: UVa’s final home game of the season is Saturday against Maryland. The ‘Hoos (1-4, 4-5) host the Terrapins (3-2, 6-3) at 3:30 p.m. in an ACC game that can be viewed on ESPN3.
Virginia has won three straight in a series that Maryland leads 41-31-2.