By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the UVa football team, a season that began with a stirring victory over BYU is in danger of unraveling.
The Cavaliers dropped their fourth straight game Saturday, this one to ACC rival Duke. Virginia, which led 22-0 late in the second quarter, fell 35-22 before a crowd of 39,071 at Scott Stadium.
“Thirty-five unanswered points is ridiculous,” said junior tailback Kevin Parks, who scored all three of UVa’s touchdowns. “I am feeling a little frustrated right now. They kept playing and we didn’t. They played four quarters and we played a half of football.”
For the Blue Devils (5-2 overall, 1-2 ACC), the win was their second straight over the Cavaliers (2-5, 0-3) and fifth in the teams’ past six meetings. It came on a day when the Wahoos did little wrong for about 25 minutes, a stretch in which they scored three touchdowns, the last of which junior wide receiver Miles Gooch capped with a two-point conversion run.
There weren’t a lot of fans in 61,500-seat Scott Stadium on this fall afternoon, but the die-hards loved what they were seeing from a team that had suffered a heartbreaking loss to Maryland a week earlier.
“Guys were confident,” fifth-year senior center Luke Bowanko said. “Guys were having fun. They were flying around making plays.”
Then came an epic and inexplicable collapse. For the second straight year, Duke outscored UVa 28-0 in the second half.
“It got ugly fast,” Bowanko said. “I’m not proud of the product we put out there, but obviously Duke played a hell of a second half, so all credit to them.”
Virginia, which gained 280 yards in the first half, picked up only 83 more after the break. In the third quarter, the Cavaliers totaled 7 yards and no first downs. They didn’t get a first down in the second half until the 10:48 mark of the final quarter, and that came on a Duke penalty.
“The momentum just died,” Bowanko said. “When you’re not getting first downs, it’s hard to keep executing and stay up.”
Sophomore quarterback David Watford said: “We try to stay as positive as we can. Of course, when things go wrong, guys start to hang their heads. You try to just keep everybody up and keep everybody into the game, fighting till the end. Until the clock strikes zero, we want to keep fighting and just keep the energy high and just keep everybody mentally strong and mentally focused, into the game.”
The Cavaliers played without two of their top defenders, senior tackle Brent Urban (ankle) and junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson (toe). Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s group, stout for most of the first half, wore down as the game progressed.
“At this point in the season I’m quite sure there’s a lot of teams out there that have players that are out,” said Mike London, UVa’s fourth-year head coach. “It’s always about the second-man-up mentality, the next guy in being able to perform, guys stepping up.
“The second half, we didn’t have enough guys step up defensively to affect what they were doing offensively.”
The Devils piled up 287 yards and 14 first downs in the second half, and the Cavaliers’ offense did little to ease the pressure on their defense.
“The second half, it was discouraging and it was disappointing,” London said. “We gotta do a better job coaching and teaching them, and we have to execute to give ourselves a chance in these second-half periods when things go back and forth and you have to handle some adversity that’s happening, and respond to that.”
The Blue Devils, who didn’t cross midfield until their penultimate possession of the first half, were 4 for 4 on fourth-down conversions after intermission.
One of those conversions came early in the final quarter, on fourth-and-1 from the UVa 47. Backup quarterback Brandon Connette faked a handoff and then tossed a short pass to tight end Braxton Deaver, who sprinted to the end zone for the touchdown that put the Devils ahead for the first time.
“They made plays,” London said. “We didn’t. And they’re walking out of here with a victory, and we have a defeat.”
Three plays earlier, from the Virginia 44, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone had thrown a long pass into double coverage. The ball bounced off the hands of junior safety Anthony Harris, who had stopped the Devils’ first drive of the second half with an interception, and fell to the ground.
“A play like that, nobody around, I just gotta come down with the ball and just get us off the field right there,” Harris said. “A play like that kept the drive going and led to a score. Definitely it’ll run through my mind a little bit.”
Trailing 25-22, Virginia drove from its 21-yard line to Duke’s 22, where on third-and-5 Watford threw an incompletion after barely beating the play clock. Out came junior Alec Vozenilek, who had run 10 yards for a first down on a fake punt in the second quarter, to attempt a 39-yard field goal.
Vozenilek’s kick split the uprights, but it was nullified by a false-start penalty on sophomore guard Jay Whitmire. UVa moved back 5 yards. A week earlier, in the final seconds against Maryland, Vozenilek had missed a 42-yard attempt, and now he hooked a 44-yarder wide left.
On its next drive, Duke drove 73 yards for another TD, and that sent many of the remaining UVa fans home.
“Once again we beat ourselves, offensively and defensively,” Virginia junior linebacker Henry Coley said. “If we have the ball in our hands, we have to come down with it, either way. We have to score and we have to keep them from scoring.
“We get penalties on a field goal where we have to go back 5 yards. We made the first field goal, but then we had to come around and kick it again. We just have to take care of ourselves and execute all the time, first half and second half, in order to come out with a W.”
Parks was among the Cavaliers who distinguished themselves Saturday. After rushing for two first-quarter touchdowns, he found another way to score late in the second quarter. On third-and-7 from the Duke 13, Watford dumped a pass to Parks, uncovered in the middle of the field. After pinning the ball against his right leg to secure it, Parks leaped and somersaulted into the end zone.
“I knew guys were going to dive at the legs,” Parks said, “so I went over the top and tried to make a play for my team.”
Parks finished with a team-high 88 yards receiving (on six catches) and added 50 rushing (on 15 carries). True freshman tailback Taquan Mizzell had a career-long 36-yard run and led the `Hoos with 52 yards on six carries.
Watford tied his career high with 263 yards passing, but, like the rest of the offense, he was ineffective in the second half. He finished 20-of-38 passing, with one interception.
“He’s got to play better,” London said. “I’m sure he understands that. He played well in the first half, but not good enough, not better, in the second half.”
Five regular-season games remain for the Cavaliers, who finished 4-8 in 2012. Those five opponents — Georgia Tech, Clemson, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech — have a combined record of 23-10. Only one of them, UNC (1-5), is below .500.
London knows his players are hurting after their latest setback.
“”It’s challenging. It’s tough,” he said. “They’re young men that are 18, 19, 20 years old, and you have to deal with their psyche. There’s enough negativity that’s around that we have to respond and block out the distractions. We have to move on. We have to move forward.”
Watford said the Cavaliers will “keep fighting. We’re going to have to stay positive. We have no choice but to.”
UP NEXT: The midpoint of UVa’s three-game homestand comes next Saturday. At 12:30 p.m., Virginia (2-5, 0-3) hosts Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-2), which also competes in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
The Yellow Jackets warmed up for their visit to Charlottesville by embarrassing Syracuse 56-0 in Atlanta on Saturday afternoon.
UVa has lost three of its past four games with Georgia Tech, including a 56-20 romp in Atlanta last season. The series is tied 17-17-1.