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Football team has no excuses for loss to dismal Duke

It appeared that the football deities were staunchly against Virginia in its quest to topple Duke for the fifth consecutive year. Maybe Thomas Jones indeed did recover his own fumble midway through the fourth quarter, a bobble that allowed the Blue Devils to tie the score. Maybe Ahmad Hawkins' left foot snuck inside the chalk for an apparent game-tying touchdown in double overtime.

Does it really matter, though? The Cavaliers can cry to the gods; they can moan to the officials; they can bellow for instant replay (although I don't know why anyone would want that), but the stark truth remains: Bungles, blunders and all around sloppy play don't give the squad room for excuses. Instead, they give Virginia a loss, and an embarrassing one at that.

"We made too many mistakes," Cav coach George Welsh said after the 24-17 double overtime defeat. "We're not going to beat anybody with the mistakes we made."

A gross number of mistakes. On paper, this game smacked of a mismatch, with winless Duke serving as nothing more than a pit stop as the Cavs readied for N.C. State in Raleigh next weekend. Entering Charlottesville, Duke's offense was so abominable - 51 yards rushing per game, no quarterback with a completion percentage above 47 percent, a total of 17 points scored in four first halves - that Virginia could have posted a performance ranging anywhere from mediocre to downright poor and gotten away with it.

But the Cavs took it a step lower. No facet of the game was immune to the hiccups that possibly cost Virginia the chance to prolong its streak of 12 straight seasons with at least seven victories.

So where do we begin?

How about on offense. Virginia had multiple chances to bury the Devils, and it squandered them. All of them.

Just over five minutes into the contest, the Cav offense already was the beneficiary of a Dwayne Stukes interception on the Duke 44-yard line. A 10-yard Jones sprint off right tackle, and suddenly the Cavs stood at the Devil 28. Then Dan Ellis decided to go airborne, lofting a wobbly pass in the direction of Kevin Coffey ... and two Devil defenders. A leaping Eric Jones snared the pigskin, and Duke escaped a seemingly inescapable situation.

Miraculously, the Cavs maintained a 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter and were marching resolutely down the field to quell any thought of a comeback. That is, of course, until they shot themselves in the foot yet again.

With the ball at the Duke 14, Ellis handed the ball to Jones, the Cav workhorse who at times single-handedly kept Virginia in the game with a 185-yard, two-touchdown rushing effort.

But Jones fumbled. Tyran Grissom met Jones head on, and as the pigskin squirted loose, Mike Steinbaugh was quick to pounce on it. Duke had new life.

The pressure now rested squarely on the shoulders of the defense. Harboring such weight proved too much as Sims Lenhardt hit a field goal to knot the score at 10.

Then Jones' three-yard touchdown plunge gave the Cavs a 17-10 edge and the defense one simple task: Keep the Devils out of the end zone.

They couldn't do it. From its own 30-yard line, Duke attempted the impossible: Parade 70 yards in just 1:17 - with its putrid offense. Even with the Cavs anticipating deep passes to Scottie Montgomery and Richmond Flowers, they still could not halt the Devils, who knotted the score with just six ticks left.

"If I had an answer for you, then I'd tell you," linebacker Byron Thweatt said. "We knew what was coming. I don't understand - I guess we just had mental lapses."

Had the Virginia special teams remained intact, Duke never would have forced overtime. Just three minutes into the game, the Cav defense halted Duke's first drive, and Brian Morton came on to punt. Arlen Harris fielded the punt at his own 31 and raced 69 yards for an eye-popping touchdown. An illegal block in the back, however, negated Harris' heroics and three plays later Virginia was the one punting.

And even Cav Donnie Scott, regarded among the nation's finest punters, could not avoid the plague. Standing in his own end zone midway through the third quarter, he botched the snap and reclaimed the ball near the back line. But instead of hurling the ball out of the end zone for a safety, Scott threw an incomplete pass. The miscue gave Duke the ball at the Virginia 10-yard line and led to a Devil touchdown.

"Right now we're on a decline, and we have to get back on an incline," Tim Spruill said.

With the Cavs wallowing at an all-time low, there's only one direction they can go. Now we'll see if they actually do go that way.