By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — After winning its previous two games by comfortable margins, the surging University of Virginia football team showed Saturday that it can thrive under pressure, too.

The Cavaliers, who trailed 14-7 late in the first half, rallied to defeat Duke 28-21 on an unseasonably warm afternoon at Scott Stadium.

“I think this is more enjoyable than the big ones sometimes, especially against a really good defense like that,” UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert said. “It’s huge.”

A graduate student who’s in his second year as the Wahoos’ starter, Benkert threw two interceptions in the first quarter, one of which Duke returned for a touchdown. But he persevered and finished the game with solid passing numbers: 24 of 43 for 182 yards and three TDs. He also ran five times for 17 yards.

Benkert’s teammates showed similar resolve as the `Hoos improved to 4-1 overall and 1-0 in the ACC.

“Our team played hard today,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “and they played with resiliency and determination and toughness and grit. It was a challenging game, but we knew it would be. And we knew there would be ups and downs and we knew there’d be lead changes and we knew that [Duke’s] defense would be disruptive and cause some problems.”

Virginia, idle last weekend, opened the scoring at the 12:08 mark of the first quarter Saturday. Senior safety Quin Blanding picked off a pass deflected by sophomore cornerback Bryce Hall and returned the interception 58 yards for a touchdown. That set the tone for a stellar defensive effort by the `Hoos, who held the Blue Devils (4-2, 1-2) to 255 yards Saturday.

“We always say we’re going to be a defensive football team,” said senior linebacker Micah Kiser, who had 10 tackles. “Coach Mendenhall’s a defensive coach. Holding an ACC opponent to 255 yards, that’s awesome on defense, and we think we can get better.”

The final minutes were tenser than they needed to be for Virginia. A penalty on Doni Dowling after his second touchdown reception — the senior wide receiver was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after turning a somersault in celebration — forced the Cavaliers to kick off from their 20-yard line. Shaun Wilson returned Brian Delaney’s kick 68 yards to the UVA 12, and the Devils scored four plays later to make it a one-touchdown game with 6:14 left.

The score was still 28-21 when Duke got the ball back with 3:14 to play. The Blue Devils drove from their 20-yard line to the UVA 30, but on third-and-6, true freshman linebacker Charles Snowden sacked quarterback Daniel Jones for a 10-yard loss. On fourth down, Jones’ pass fell incomplete, and the `Hoos exhaled as their fans celebrated in the stands.

“Nothing’s easy,” said Mendenhall, also UVA’s defensive coordinator, “but that’s where our program is and that’s what we’re battling through. And I was proud of our players for the resiliency they showed and have shown, and it’s fun to see them smile, it’s fun to see them happy, it’s fun to see them exhausted but also have a tangible outcome that they can look to, to justify and to continue the momentum that they’re generating.”

Benkert said: “I think that’s good that we’re showing those steps that we’ve taken from last year. We were in a tight game the entire game, and we were able to overcome early adversity, so I think that shows a lot about what our team is really made of.”

The victory was UVA’s third straight over Duke. The Cavaliers’ win at Wallace Wade Stadium last year ended their 17-game road losing streak.

In that game, Duke’s Jones threw five interceptions and lost a fumble. On Saturday, he completed only 14 of 42 passes for 124 yards and one TD, with two interceptions. Junior cornerback Juan Thornhill had UVA’s other pick.

“That’s just our defense,” Blanding said when asked about the Cavaliers’ success against Jones. “I can’t give away too many secrets, but that’s just how we play.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Five games into the season, the Cavaliers have doubled their victory total from 2016, when they finished 2-10. They’re off to their best start since 2007, when the `Hoos won seven of their first eight games.

The coaching staff is still in the early stages of rebuilding the program, Mendenhall emphasized, but he sees steadily improvement and likes “the mindset on the sideline as I’m watching our players’ body language,” he said.

“There’s just a resolve of, `Oh, that just happened? OK, next play.’ And there aren’t these wild and emotional way ups and way downs. There’s just work to be performed. Then at the end of all the work when the game’s over, then we can kind of look and they get to explode in the locker room, and that’s fun.”

TURNING POINT: A 6-7, 205-pound outside linebacker from St. Albans School in D.C., where he was better known for his basketball prowess, Snowden entered the game Saturday when starter Chris Peace started cramping up with 1:45 left.

Snowden had an immediate impact, recording his second sack in as many games as a Cavalier.

“You don’t just put anyone out there,” Mendenhall said, but Snowden is “a capable and committed and assignment-sound first-year … There was a lot at stake there, and he not only did what he was supposed to do, but then actually made a play as well in that situation. It’s really cool.”

Snowden remained in the game for Duke’s final offensive play, a long incompletion that gave the ball back to UVA with 1:08 left.

“Kid’s going to be a problem [for opponents],” Kiser said.

MOMENTUM SWING: Leading 14-7, Duke took possession at its 25-yard line with 3:51 left in the first half. The Cavaliers forced a three-and-out and then put together a 69-yard drive that ended with Benkert’s 11-yard touchdown pass to junior wideout Olamide Zaccheaus with 45 seconds left.

Despite gaining only 86 yards in the first two quarters, Virginia went into intermission tied with Duke.

“That was huge,” senior offensive tackle Brandon Pertile said. “We knew we had to do it. We knew we had to step up big right there on that drive. We said it in the huddle. It was all about executing and doing what we’ve been coached to do.”

In the second half, UVA totaled 224 yards.

“We went into the half with some momentum,” said Pertile, a transfer from Oklahoma State. “I feel like we were playing hesitant up front for the first half, and in the locker room we were like, `We know what they’re doing, we know what we’re capable of, it’s time to go out there and do it.’ We decided to have that attitude and have that mindset, and it really paid off for us.”

GAME BALLS: As is usually the case in a victory, the `Hoos had many standouts Saturday. They included:

* Junior running back Jordan Ellis, who gained 96 yards on 25 carries against one of the nation’s better rushing defenses.

“He seemed to get stronger as the game went,” Mendenhall said.

Ellis said: “I knew it was going to be tough yardage when I was running the ball. But they kept giving it to me, and I just had to make the best of my opportunity. That was one of the best defenses we’ve played thus far, by far.”

Pertile said it “really makes you confident when you got a guy who won’t let one guy take him down. It makes you try that much harder, because I know when he gets hit, it’s not like he’s going to stop, so I want to go hard for him.”

* Zaccheaus, who finished with eight receptions for 69 yards — both game highs — and one TD. He’s caught at least one pass in 21 straight games.

“It wasn’t supposed to go to me initially, but it just worked out that way,” Zaccheaus said of his TD, a play on which Duke left him open in the left flat. “There was just a lane, and I took advantage of it.”

* Thornhill, who broke up four passes and intercepted another one. He became the first UVA player since Max Valles in 2014 to break up at least four passes in a game.

* Dowling, who caught five passes for 52 yards and two touchdowns. His first TD reception, with 10:30 left in the third quarter, put UVA ahead for good.

In the locker room after the game, Dowling apologized to his teammates for the 15-yard penalty he was assessed after his second touchdown.

“Lesson learned, and we’ll move forward,” Mendenhall said. “One of the things that I love most about teaching through football and coaching is the lessons of accountability, where this action equals and affects other people. And there wasn’t that much that had to be said. It played out in front of everyone. And that’s one of the cool things, if a coach and a program [are] intentional about promoting accountability and team before self, then you get those moments that hopefully are life-changing for not only one young man but maybe a group of young men as a team.”

Dowling said he grew emotional in the final seconds. “I’m just proud to be on this team. Everyone has each other’s back. They definitely had my back. When I did something selfish, they were still there for me, and we came out with the win. I was crying and everything, man. It was really powerful, just how this team is this year, just how close we really are, how much we believe, how hard we work.”

* Blanding, an All-American who made eight tackles and, most memorably, scored for the first time as a Cavalier, thanks in part to a block during his return by sophomore inside linebacker Jordan Mack.

“I knew I was going to score as soon as I caught the ball,” Blanding said. “That’s my mindset now.”

Several hours after his touchdown, Blanding was still euphoric when he showed up for postgame interviews.

“He just can’t stop smiling,” Mack said.

* Lester Coleman, a junior who averaged 50.8 yards on his eight punts.

“The field position that Lester helped us with I think could have been the difference [between winning and losing],” Mendenhall said. “I was really encouraged by what he did today.”

THEY SAID IT: The Cavaliers had much to discuss after their third straight victory. Among the highlights:

* Benkert on Dowling: “The somersault hurt us, but he plays with so much emotion and passion that I kind of liked it. I know it hurt our team with the penalty, but seeing someone that cares that much. That’s who he is, and he’s going to give everything he has every single time he’s on the field.”

* Mendenhall on his decision to attempt two fourth-down conversions, each of which failed: “We’re trying to win every game, and that mindset sometimes has to come from the head coach in terms of what we’re going to do. And I think the message is that we’re capable, and I believe they can do it. And when we don’t, then hopefully the defense stops them … But we’re not going to be passive and we’re not going to be safe and we’re not going to be lukewarm.”

* Kiser on the support of UVA fans, who were in full voice on Duke’s final possession: “I appreciate them staying … We want to keep this momentum going.”

UVA’s next home game is Oct. 21 against Boston College.

WHAT’S NEXT? At 3:30 p.m. next Saturday, Virginia 4-1, 1-0) plays ACC rival North Carolina (1-5, 0-3) at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.

The Tar Heels lost at home today to Notre Dame/

UNC has won seven straight over UVA in a series that dates to 1892. The Cavaliers haven’t defeated Carolina since 2009 in what’s billed as the South’s oldest rivalry.

“Another week, another challenge,” Mack said.

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