By Jeff White (email@example.com)
DURHAM, N.C. — After the first start of his college career, UVa’s quarterback Phillip Sims blamed himself for the offense’s struggles. The Cavaliers gained 461 yards but scored only 17 points — all in the first half — in an ACC game in which the Duke Blue Devils scored 42.
“I didn’t put my teammates in enough position to make plays,” Sims said Saturday evening at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium.
“Seventeen points in a football game is not acceptable, and I put that on my shoulders. I’m the quarterback.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor saw it differently. When he emerged from the locker room to meet with reporters, Lazor issued a statement of sorts before the first question could be asked.
“Personally, there’s no doubt in my mind that was my fault,” Lazor said after UVa’s fourth loss to Duke in the teams’ past five meetings and third straight defeat in Durham.
“I thought I did a poor job preparing the game plan as far as the passing game. I just felt like, the way we ran the ball in the first half” — Virginia rushed for 184 yards — “we should have been successful, we should have scored more points, because we were running the ball very effectively,” Lazor said.
“We obviously didn’t have enough passing-game production to go along with it, and I’m just going to have to do a better job … We’ve got to get more than 17 points in that first half, and obviously the whole second half was disappointing.”
The sad truth for the Wahoos (2-4 overall, 0-2 ACC) is that they failed to distinguish themselves in any phase of the game versus Duke (5-1, 2-0). The ‘Hoos showed questionable clock management, missed two field-goal attempts, gave up a long punt return that set up a Duke touchdown, totaled only 8 yards on their four punt returns and 61 yards on their four kickoff returns, and surrendered 28 second-half points.
All that on a day when Virginia’s offense outgained Duke’s by 67 yards.
“Statistics look nice,” UVa head coach Mike London said, “but in the end what matters is what it says on the scoreboard.”
On each of the past four Saturdays, the scoreboard has shown Virginia with fewer points than its opponent at game’s end. A week ago, UVa was outscored 24-14 in the second half and lost 44-38 to Louisiana Tech at Scott Stadium.
Against Duke, junior Drew Jarrett kicked a 39-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter to send Virginia to the locker room ahead 17-14. The `Hoos, after giving up touchdown passes of 54 and 37 yards in the first quarter, had held the Devils scoreless for the final 23 minutes and 9 seconds of the half.
“To be quite honest, I thought we had it under control at halftime,” defensive coordinator Jim Reid said.
Instead, the Cavaliers collapsed against an opponent that, before David Cutcliffe took over as Duke’s head coach, they had owned for about three decades. To the delight of the home fans in the crowd of 26,856, the Devils scored four touchdowns and held UVa to 140 yards after intermission.
“You wouldn’t expect that at all, but you never know how a game can go,” said cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, one of four sophomore starters in Virginia’s secondary.
The `Hoos began the second half on defense, and they held. On the ensuing punt, however, Nicholson opted to field the ball inside Virginia’s 10-yard line. His fair catch meant the Cavaliers’ possession started at their 7, and a three-and-out followed.
Duke senior Conner Vernon, best-known for his feats as a record-breaking receiver, returned a low punt by Alec Vozenilek 25 yards. To make matters worse for the `Hoos, they were called for holding on the punt, and suddenly the Blue Devils were at the 12.
One play later — a TD pass from sophomore Anthony Boone to tailback Juwan Thompson — and Duke had the lead for good.
Boone usually backs up fifth-year senior Sean Renfree, who suffered an elbow injury last weekend against Wake Forest. The Devils didn’t need Renfree versus Virginia. Boone, in his first start, completed 18 of 31 passes for 212 yards and four TDs. He wasn’t sacked and wasn’t intercepted.
Two of Boone’s TD passes went to Vernon, the ACC leader in career receptions. Vernon finished with seven catches for 93 yards. His second TD reception, on a 45-yard pass from Boone, came on a play on which Vernon appeared well-covered by sophomore safety Brandon Phelps and true freshman cornerback Maurice Canady.
“We just lack consistency,” Reid said. “Bang, bang, bang, stop. Bang, bang … long ball.”
Sims, a redshirt sophomore who transferred to UVa from Alabama after the 2011-12 school year, backed up junior Michael Rocco for the first five games. Against the Devils, Sims finished 21-of-42 passing for 268 yards. But he threw two interceptions and rarely connected on the long passes that Lazor called repeatedly.
“We saw a lot of single coverage from Duke’s secondary,” Sims said. “We felt that we had the weapons to take advantage of it. We just didn’t hit `em today.”
Deep balls are often high-risk/high-reward, Lazor noted, and “we didn’t come up with the big plays on it that we had hoped to.”
London said: “It just seemed on the long balls, for whatever reason, [that they were] just over the fingertips, or just off the hands, or dropped. It definitely was disappointing, the big plays that were left out there.”
Sims’ completions included a 38-yarder to sophomore wideout Dominique Terrell, a 30-yarder to another sophomore receiver, E.J. Scott, and a 25-yarder to sophomore tight end Jake McGee. But Sims forced some throws, including a first-quarter pass that was intercepted, and his receivers, unlike Vernon, were generally unable to make anything but routine catches.
Again, Sims took responsibility for the passing-game breakdowns.
“We just weren’t clicking today, and as a quarterback, I take that and I put that on my shoulders,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. I don’t expect my receivers to come out here and have to make one-hand catches. That’s not what I expect. I expect to put the ball on the money every single play, and I just didn’t do that today.”
Lazor said: “It’s not Phillip’s fault. It’s my fault.”
The Cavaliers converted only 4 of 16 third-down opportunities. On fourth down, they went 0 for 3. Most damaging was the miss early in the third quarter when, trailing 21-17, UVa called a running play on fourth-and-1 from its 47-yard line.
Duke stuffed sophomore tailback Kevin Parks and took over at Virginia’s 45. Five plays later, the Devils were in the end zone, this time on an 11-yard run by Jela Duncan.
“I’m pretty sure that those guys on the other sideline were riding high after that stop,” Sims said. “That’s a big-time play. Fourth-and-short, we’ve gotta capitalize on that situation, we’ve gotta make that play. But as an offense, you can’t let them take the air of your sail, just because they get a play like that. They made the play, they went down and scored, but we’ve still got to respond, no matter what the situation is.”
Senior tailback Perry Jones led UVa with 100 yards rushing, including a touchdown, on 19 carries, and Parks ran nine times for 74 yards and a TD — the team’s first on the ground since the Sept. 1 opener. But the Cavaliers netted only 2 yards rushing after the break.
“We didn’t answer,” London said of his team’s second-half play. “We didn’t respond.”
And now the Cavaliers, who finished 8-5 in 2011, must try to turn around a season that began with wins over Richmond and Penn State.
As a team captain, Jones said, he has to “reiterate to the guys that it’s not the end of the season. Yes, it hurts, and nobody wants to be at this point at this particular part of the season, but it’s not over. We’ve still got half of our games left. We’ve just got to keep getting better in practice and go from there.”
Parks said: “We gotta be businesslike from now on. No laughing and joking. None of that. Everything’s businesslike in that locker room from now on.”
There was no laughing or joking on UVa’s sideline in the final minutes. Sims said later that his message to teammates was this: Don’t quit.
“I’m not going to quit on anybody,” Sims told reporters. “I’m going to play the whole four quarters, no matter what … When you give up, that’s when things just go downhill. I’m not going to quit. I don’t want any of my teammates to quit. We just gotta keep fighting through this. It’s not a good time right now, but you gotta fight through it. If you want to be victorious in the end, there’s obstacles for every human being on this earth. You gotta keep fighting through it. That’s the true test of a man.”
UP NEXT: At 3 p.m. Saturday, in its Homecomings game, Virginia hosts ACC rival Maryland (3-2, 1-0) at Scott Stadium.
Maryland, which is in its second season under Randy Edsall, rallied to beat visiting Wake Forest 19-14 on Saturday.
The Cavaliers pounded the Terrapins 31-13 in College Park, Md., last year and have won four of the past five games in the series.