Cavs snap Duke curse, 31-21
Minnifield pick-six propels team to first win against Devils since ‘07
A balanced offensive effort and a 54-yard interception return for a touchdown by senior cornerback Chase Minnifield carried the Virginia football team to a 31-21 victory against Duke Saturday at Scott Stadium. The Cavaliers beat the Blue Devils in a back-and-forth battle for the first time since 2007 and also handed Mike London the first three-game winning streak of his head coaching tenure.
"It definitely was a big chip on our shoulder," senior wide receiver Kris Burd said. "[Duke] had got three in a row on us, so we knew it was a big game and we just had to execute and we did what we had to do."
Virginia (7-3, 4-2 ACC) had scored first during its past five games, but that streak - and the four wins it produced - appeared to be in jeopardy early after the first two offensive drives resulted in quick punts. The defense responded with a strong early showing, but the effort was almost wasted when freshman wide receiver Dominique Terrell let a punted ball graze his leg and Duke recovered in Virginia territory. The gaffe gave Duke (3-7, 1-5 ACC) great field position, but the special teams unit made amends on its next opportunity as senior defensive tackle Matt Conrath blocked a 25-yard field goal attempt, Conrath's third block this season.
"It was just a laser," Conrath said. "I just did what I could and got my hands on it."
The special teams turnaround invigorated the offense as sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco found his familiar first quarter rhythm and guided the Cavaliers to an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Junior tailback Perry Jones and redshirt freshman tailback Kevin Parks combined for 36 yards rushing and Rocco completed three passes for 39 yards, the last a 6-yard touchdown toss to sophomore tight end Jeremiah Mathis for a 7-0 advantage.
The lead proved short-lived, however. On the third play of Duke's subsequent possession, senior wide receiver Donovan Varner turned redshirt junior quarterback Sean Renfree's short pass into six points when he dodged senior safety Rodney McLeod's diving tackle and scurried 64 yards down the right sideline to tie the game at 7-7 within the first minute of the start of the second quarter.
Virginia's defense then appeared to stop a Duke drive on the goal line when senior safety Corey Mosley swatted away Renfree's fourth-down pass in the end zone, but a late flag gave the Blue Devils first and goal at the 2-yard line. Amid a chorus of boos from the incensed Cavalier supporters, sophomore tailback Juwan Thompson punched in from a yard out two plays later for a 14-7 Duke lead with less than nine minutes before the halftime break.
"You agree to disagree on things like that," London said of the pass interference call. "It set up an opportunity ... for them. I may have been wrong, and [the official] may have been right, but at the time I disagreed with it."
The teams traded punts before Rocco began a drive at the Virginia 22-yard line with 6:34 remaining in the half. The sophomore signal caller completed five of eight passes for 73 yards on an 11-play drive capped when Burd tiptoed down the left sideline for a 38-yard catch-and-run touchdown, his first score of the season.
"It's definitely an exciting thing," Burd said. "I haven't been [in the end zone] in a while, since last season. It's a great feeling to finally get in there. I knew I was in [bounds] the whole way."
After the halftime break and with the score tied at 14 apiece, Renfree drove Duke to midfield, but his short pass found Minnifield instead, who returned his third interception this season 54 yards for a touchdown to put Virginia back on top, 21-14.
"It was cover-two coverage and I don't think the quarterback saw me," Minnifield said. "I basically ended up with an easy pick. It felt good to get a [pick six] because they took one away from me against William & Mary. I told everyone I would be back."
Again, the Virginia defense uncharacteristically allowed the Blue Devils to answer. After Renfree found junior wide receiver Connor Vernon for a 51-yard pass to the Virginia 3-yard line, Thompson tallied his second score of the game on a 1-yard touchdown dive to tie the game at 21-21 with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Unfazed, the Cavalier offense continued to impress as Rocco unleashed a 21-yard rope to senior fullback Max Milien and a 22-yard toss to wide-open junior tight end Paul Freedman five plays later. Jones then dove over the pile and extended the ball across the goal line from a yard out to re-establish Virginia's lead, 28-21.
The defense forced a Blue Devils punt and Rocco and Parks picked up where they left off during the last series. Parks rushed twice for 27 yards and Rocco completed two of four passes for 31 yards to set up senior kicker Robert Randolph's 29-yard field goal, which split the uprights for a 31-21 Cavalier lead. During the first game this season that he took every snap for Virginia, Rocco finished 15-of-29 passing for 191 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
"I'm very confident in [Rocco]," senior center Anthony Mihota said. "It was different at the beginning of the season - not knowing who was going to play and everything. Once he was established as the starter, we all rallied behind him and we were able to have all of our faith in him to make good decisions."
Four punts later, Duke took possession at Virginia's 33-yard line after a long punt return by Vernon, but after moving the ball into field goal range, redshirt senior kicker Will Snyderwine missed his second field goal attempt wide left from 34 yards out. From there, a clutch fourth-down tackle by senior linebacker Aaron Taliaferro and the running tandem of Jones and Parks sealed Virginia's seventh win of the season and kept alive its dreams of the program's first-ever appearance in the ACC title game.
"We are excited, but we really are taking this one step at a time," Rocco said. "We finished here and still control our own destiny. If we win from here on out we can make ourselves available for an ACC Championship and a really good spot in a bowl game, so we are taking it one game at a time from here on out"