By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Virginia’s defense came up with five takeaways and stopped ACC rival Duke on fourth down three times.
UVA’s offense, which hadn’t reached the end zone in what seemed an eternity, scored five touchdowns. The Cavaliers’ special teams contributed two Brian Delaney field goals and a Joe Reed kickoff return for a touchdown, the fifth of his illustrious college career.
“Amazing example of complementary football,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall told his team in the home locker room Saturday night at Scott Stadium.
In front of an appreciative crowd on a crisp fall day, it all added up to a resounding 48-14 victory for Virginia, which was playing at home for the first time since Sept. 21 and coming off back-to-back losses.
“I didn’t anticipate the game going as it did,” Mendenhall said, “because rarely do [the Blue Devils] turn the ball over. Rarely does pressure affect them the way that it did, and uncharacteristically the number of turnovers and the field position and just the way the game went in general wasn’t how Duke had played football to this point.”
So dominant were the Wahoos (5-2 overall, 3-1 ACC) that it wasn’t obvious to whom Mendenhall would give the honor of breaking the rock to signify another victory. Appealing possibilities abounded, including defensive coordinator Nick Howell.
“Is Coach Howell a candidate to break the rock?” junior linebacker Charles Snowden asked in the locker room.
Moments later, Mendenhall answered that question affirmatively, handing the sledgehammer to Howell, who was happy to oblige. Against Duke, which had scored fewer than 41 points in only two games this season, Howell’s defense allowed only 250 yards, 84 of which came in the final quarter. Not until the 5:58 mark of the third quarter did the Blue Devils’ offense cross midfield.
“Coach Howell challenged us at the beginning of the week to give more effort and have a better mindset,” said defensive lineman Eli Hanback, a fifth-year senior, “and I think all week we as a defense just tried harder. We were hitting and we were physical, and then when it came to the days we weren’t hitting, we were really locked in on our assignment and technique. He challenged us, and our [other] coaches challenged us, and I think we answered that challenge.”
Even more impressive, the Cavaliers’ tour de force came in their first full game without All-America cornerback Bryce Hall, who suffered a season-ending injury last weekend against ACC foe Miami. In Hall’s absence, redshirt junior De’Vante Cross started at cornerback and redshirt junior Chris Moore took over Cross’ spot at safety.
Moore finished with a career-high 12 tackles, and Cross had two pass breakups. Howell, who oversees the secondary, and his defensive backs wore T-shirts on which Hall’s number, 34, was printed.
“To replace Bryce it takes two, not one, “Mendenhall said, “and [Cross and Moore] both did really well against a team that was scoring [nearly] 40 points a game [in ACC play].”
Neither team scored in the first quarter Saturday, which extended the Cavaliers’ streak of quarters without a touchdown to seven. But senior quarterback Bryce Perkins broke through early in the second quarter with the first of his three touchdown runs, and UVA’s offense grew more confident and productive as the game progressed.
“We found our rhythm,” Perkins said, “and we kept striving and pushing forward, and our defense did a great job of getting us short field position on multiple drives.”
Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa rushed 14 times for 77 yards and two touchdowns behind an offensive line that had struggled in Virginia’s previous two games, losses at Notre Dame and at Miami.
Offensive line coach Garett Tujague said he challenges his group “every day. Every day we’re consumed with running the football, struggling and straining and pushing and fighting and clawing and doing whatever you gotta do to move the ball.”
The Cavaliers allowed 13 sacks in their losses to the Fighting Irish and the Hurricanes. They gave up two against Duke.
“I’m really happy with some of the progress I saw with our offensive front and protection of our quarterback and improvement in the run game,” Mendenhall said.
Perkins finished with a season-high 22 carries, many coming on designed runs. The Cavaliers’ No. 2 quarterback, redshirt freshman Brennan Armstrong, didn’t play Saturday, but he was available after missing four games with a toe injury.
With Armstrong sidelined, Virginia’s coaches have been “very intentional not to run [Perkins], which puts more pressure on our offensive front,” Mendenhall said.
With those restrictions removed, Perkins is “another ball carrier back there,” Tujague said, “and defenses have to recognize him and have to pay attention to where he is and what he’s doing. So it makes things a little bit easier on [the offensive line].”
Perkins said: “I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Virginia woke up Saturday in a three-way tie with Duke and North Carolina for first place in the Coastal Division. The Cavaliers went to bed alone atop the Coastal. In second is Pitt (5-2, 2-1), which UVA beat in the Aug. 31 season opener at Heinz Field.
“The Coastal is an amazing and crazy division,” Mendenhall said, “and that was just manifest again today.”
CLASS OF HIS OWN: The Blue Devils (4-3, 2-2) chose to kick to Reed twice, and each time he made their decision look foolish.
Reed returned the opening kickoff 43 yards to the UVA 44. Then late in the third quarter, after a Duke touchdown cut Virginia’s lead to 27-7, he ran back the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.
“The blocking is awesome,” said Reed, a senior who also starts at wide receiver. “Not too many people want to block on special teams or run down on special teams, but we’re fortunate enough to have guys on this team who genuinely want to be out there blocking for me. When I get awards or when the statistics come out, I always text them and say, ‘Look what we did.’ I never say, ‘Look what I did.’ … This is the best blocking I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Reed’s teammates “actually are surprised if he doesn’t cross the 50,” Mendenhall said. “That’s a pretty powerful compliment from his peers.”
PLAY IT AGAIN: In 2016, when linebacker Jordan Mack was a true freshman, he sacked Duke quarterback Daniel Jones in the end zone at Wallace Wade Stadium, forcing a fumble that Hanback, then a redshirt freshman, recovered for a touchdown.
This play wasn’t nearly as dramatic, but Mack, now a senior, sacked quarterback Quentin Harris late in the third quarter Saturday, forcing a fumble that Hanback recovered at the Duke 21.
“This time I didn’t get in the end zone,” Hanback said, smiling.
GAME BALLS: With its fifth straight victory over Duke, UVA increased its series lead to 38-33. The Cavaliers’ standouts included:
• Reed, who had five catches for 45 yards in addition to his 138 yards (and one touchdown) on kickoff returns.
“If you choose to kick to him, there is risk,” Mendenhall said.
• Perkins, who threw a first-quarter interception but otherwise played well. He finished with 62 yards and three TDs rushing and completed 13 of 26 passes for 141 yards.
• Delaney, who was 2 for 2 on field goals, 4 for 4 on extra points, and had touchbacks on six of his eight kickoffs.
• Junior outside linebacker Matt Gahm, who had a game-high two tackles for loss.
“Matt’s just an old-fashioned linebacker,” Snowden said. “Matt just loves physicality and hitting, and so that’s kind of a different dynamic than what me and Noah [Taylor] bring to the table. I know when Matt’s on the other side and they run that way, it’s going to be a good thing for the defense.”
* Junior safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, each of whom had an interception.
* Mack, who had Virginia’s only sack and forced a fumble.
• Senior wide receiver Hasise Dubois, who suffered a shoulder injury last weekend against Miami but had four catches for a game-high 62 yards Saturday.
• Taulapapa, who had a career-long 31-yard run late in the third quarter.
THEY SAID IT: The crowd of 52,847 was the second-largest at Scott Stadium this season. Among the postgame comments:
• Mendenhall: “Just a really good night for college football in Charlottesville. I thought the crowd was powerful. It looked, felt and acted more like a college environment that is becoming hungry for really good football and appreciating good football, and that is so fulfilling as a head coach, to see not only the progress on the field, but to see the seats becoming more full and the support becoming more vibrant.”
• Mendenhall: “Maybe twice in my career I’ve told my wife, ‘I think we’re going to win this week’ or ‘I like how it looks.’ Most of the time I don’t know. I didn’t know today. I thought we’d have a great chance to win. I thought it would be a hard-fought game. I thought it would come down to the last possession.”
• Perkins: “Back-to-back losses is the greatest motivator for a team, so we came out with a passion and a purpose, and we’ve got to continue this, regardless if we win or lose. We’ve got to play with that fierce mindset, game by game by game.”
• Snowden on playing without Hall: “His presence is definitely missed. It’s a little bit weird, but it was kind of like a collective leadership stood up … Guys kind of rallied around it.”
• Perkins: “I think as an offense, we just came out with a different mentality. The five guys up front came out with an aggressive mentality, and they played their butts off.”
• Virginia junior cornerback Nick Grant on how the loss of Hall affects the secondary: “We’re a cohesive unit. We’re all really close friends off the field … We just try to stick together and know that we have each other’s back more than anything else. If anything, Bryce going down brought us closer together. We’re all just unified and trying to lift him up through our play.”
• Duke head coach David Cutcliffe: “From time to time you have days that go like this, and in football it is a huge setback for us tonight. To be honest, there is a little bit of a shock factor. Everybody is hurting.”
• Blount on the defense’s takeaways: “Those plays just give the energy back to the offense.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Virginia (5-2, 3-1) plays at Louisville (4-3, 2-2) next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and at North Carolina (3-4, 2-2) on Nov. 2. The visit to Chapel Hill will cap a five-game stretch during which the Cavaliers play only once at Scott Stadium.
UVA is 0-3 all-time at Louisville. The Cardinals lost 45-10 at home Saturday afternoon to No. 3 Clemson.
UNC lost in six overtimes Saturday to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
The starting time for the UVA-UNC game is expected to be announced Monday. The Hoos have won two straight over the Tar Heels.