Football outlasts Duke on Bicentennial weekend

Cavalier defense shut down Blue Devils as Benkert recovers from tough start

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Cavalier senior free safety Quin Blanding intercepted Duke sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones and returned the pick for a touchdown. 

Chelesa Bengson | Cavalier Daily

Prior to Saturday, wins were coming relatively easily for the Virginia football team — the Cavaliers largely dominated in their first three victories, all by double digits. This Saturday, a hard-nosed Duke team challenged Virginia to grind out a win for the first time this season. Though it did not come easy, the Cavaliers (4-1, 1-0 ACC) took down the Blue Devils (4-2, 1-2 ACC) in a 28-21 defensive slugfest on Bicentennial weekend.

A slow start and finish for the Virginia offense forced the defense to stay engaged for four full quarters, and the Cavaliers answered the call in stride. Once the offense found its footing, there was little doubt Virginia would come out victorious.

“Our team played hard today and they played with resiliency and determination and toughness and grit,” Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “And it was a challenging game, but we knew it would be. I was proud of our players for the resiliency they showed and have shown.”

Defenses reigned supreme in the first quarter. After Virginia began the game with a turnover on downs, Cavalier senior free safety Quin Blanding intercepted Duke sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones and returned the pick for a touchdown. The interception was Blanding’s first of the season and the first pick-six of his career.

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

The Blue Devils returned the favor later in the quarter when Duke junior free safety Jeremy McDuffie jumped a route and took Virginia senior quarterback Kurt Benkert’s pass 42 yards to the house. Neither offense generated much of anything — both quarterbacks had two interceptions by the quarter break, and Jones had passed for negative one yards.

Halfway through the second quarter, Jones got his offense going by using his legs. The sophomore rushed for 48 yards on Duke’s first scoring drive, which he capped with a seven-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Davis Koppenhaver.

Two drives later, Virginia pushed down the field with the help of three penalties by the Duke secondary, and Benkert finally settled into a rhythm. The senior tied the game with less than a minute remaining in the half off an 11-yard screen pass to junior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus.

Duke opened the second half with the game knotted at 14, but the Cavalier defense quickly forced a punt. Benkert caught fire on the ensuing drive, nailing big passes downfield to Zacchaeus and senior wide receiver Andre Levrone. The Cape Coral, Fla. native capped off the 79-yard drive with a five-yard touchdown strike to senior wide receiver Doni Dowling at the goal line to take the lead.

The Cavalier offense began finding success after switching to a short passing game, looking to combat Duke’s fierce pass rush.

“I think it helps a lot when we get the ball that quick,” Benkert said. “It wears them down and they can’t keep it up for four quarters. Getting the ball out quick kind of eliminates the pass rush.”

Defensively, Virginia put Jones completely out of sync as he struggled to complete deep balls. The sophomore finished the day a dismal 14 of 42 with only 124 passing yards. Virginia junior strong safety Juan Thornhill starred with lockdown coverage of Duke junior wide receiver T.J. Rahming — the team’s best deep threat — holding him to only 39 yards. Thornhill also picked Jones off late in the first quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Benkert found Dowling for another touchdown on a dramatic scramble and throw for 17 yards. Dowling got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct — pushing Virginia's kickoff back — and Duke responded with a big kick return that took them to Virginia’s 12-yard line. Duke ran for a touchdown several plays later, cutting Virginia’s lead to 28-21.

Pressure was put back on the Cavalier defense, but once again, it refused to let up. The unit halted the Blue Devils on its final two drives, and Virginia assembled the victory formation with a minute left.

“We made timely stops, and that’s how we won it,” senior linebacker Micah Kiser said. “We always say we’re going to be a defensive football team. Holding an ACC opponent to 250 yards, that’s awesome on defense.”

In year two of Mendenhall’s leadership, Virginia is beginning to find a formula for success. A stout defense complementing the improved efficiency of Benkert has Virginia within two wins of a bowl berth after only five games.

Blanding — one of Virginia’s captains, and who considered leaving for the NFL Draft after last season — has seen Mendenhall’s foundational philosophies take root.

“[Turning the program around] is the main reason I came back,” Blanding said. “I trust the process, and we’re just going to keep building from here. It’s amazing to see it work. We’ve been trusting it since last year.”

The Cavaliers will bring hefty momentum when they travel to Chapel Hill, N.C. next weekend to face reeling North Carolina in their second ACC tilt.

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