Football opens ACC play in matchup at Duke
Cavaliers look to win on the road for the first time since 2012
Fresh off their first win of the season, the Cavaliers will travel to North Carolina this weekend to play ACC rival Duke.
Despite a Virginia team (1-3, 0-0 ACC) that looked unpolished and unprepared throughout its first three games, fans watched as the Cavaliers decisively defeated a Central Michigan team (3-1, 0-0 MAC) which was favored to win Saturday’s contest.
“I think we are getting more clear about the roles and the usage of our offensive personnel,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I thought the offensive staff did a really nice job of getting the ball to the right players on the right type of plays to highlight what they are able to do.”
The potent offense produced by the Cavaliers was due in large part to junior quarterback Kurt Benkert’s standout job. In Saturday’s game, Benkert threw for 421 yards, five touchdowns and only one interception. It was by far his best performance of the season and because of it, Benkert now holds the record for the most passing yards recorded over the first four starts of any quarterback in Virginia history.
Mendenhall credits Virginia’s offensive performance Saturday to the team’s dedicated work in practice.
“I think that it's sequential and it's systematic and it's methodical, and through four weeks, we've seen our offense continue to grow and improve,” Mendenhall said. “At UConn, we hung for a second and were on the verge of growing and maturing in a couple different ways and then [this week we] took a pretty significant step forward.”
In Saturday’s win, the Cavaliers far outperformed the Chippewas on the offensive side of the ball. Sophomore receiver Olamide Zaccheaus led Virginia with 141 yards on eight receptions and two touchdowns, while senior running back Taquan Mizzell finished with 79 yards on 10 carries, one touchdown and a scorching run of 44 yards.
In order to beat Duke and win their first away game since 2012, however, the Cavaliers will have to carry the momentum generated from their win over Central Michigan with them to Durham, N.C.
Despite a rocky start, in which they lost two of their first three games, the Blue Devils are coming off an incredible away upset over Notre Dame in week four. A late, game-winning field goal by freshman kicker AJ Reed was enough to separate the two teams.
"That unit there, they believe in him, and he's got a lot of talent,” Duke head Coach David Cutcliffe said. “I know when it came down there at the end — the field goal — there was no doubt in my mind he was going to make it.”
Mendenhall also expressed respect for Duke’s performance.
“I've coached at Notre Dame, and it is a tough place,” Mendenhall said. “Notre Dame’s mistakes were created by Duke's scheme and their players executing. To Duke's credit, they weren't intimidated at all. They gained confidence as the game went on, and clearly, the momentum had shifted and they believed they could win and had not only the physical presence to do so but the mental capacity to pull it off.”
Standout freshman quarterback Daniel Jones has put in solid work under center for the Blue Devils this season. Over four games, he has put up 1,090 passing yards and thrown for five touchdowns. His efficient 64.3 percent completion rate and three touchdown passes were instrumental in Duke’s 38-35 win over Notre Dame. He has also shown the ability to throw deep, posting passes of over 50 yards in three out of his four games. His performance against Notre Dame earned Jones the ACC Rookie of the Week Award.
"I think we were, as a team, executing at such a high level,” Jones said. “We weren't perfect by any stretch, but overall, we were executing more consistently than we had been."
The Cavaliers will also have to worry about the Duke defense Saturday. The Blue Devils already have 17 sacks over their first four games, the same number that they had in total last season.
Playing at Duke will most certainly present a challenge for the 1-3 Cavaliers. With pressure on Mendenhall slightly alleviated after a strong performance against Central Michigan, a win would only bolster confidence for Virginia. Saturday’s game presents a perfect opportunity for the Cavaliers to flex their muscles.
Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.