Virginia football kicked off its season against Duke Saturday, securing the win 38-20. The Cavaliers (1-0, 1-0 ACC) forced seven turnovers from the Blue Devils (0-3, 0-3 ACC) to secure their sixth straight win against Duke. While sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong had an up and down debut, he rallied in the fourth quarter, throwing two touchdowns to help Virginia pull away from their ACC Coastal rivals.
“It was a slow start — momentum was being generated with every repetition, lessons were being learned,” Mendenhall said on Armstrong’s first start. “Brennan was poised, any of the mistakes wasn’t because of demeanor … I thought he was very poised for game one.”
Virginia had a rough start to the game, as junior wide receiver Tavares Kelly fumbled during the kick-off return, giving Duke the ball at the Cavaliers’ 19-yard line. Nonetheless, the Virginia defense held strong, stifling Blue Devil senior running back Deon Jackson at the goal line and forcing Duke to settle for a field goal.
Armstrong struggled in his first career drive as the starter, almost throwing an interception as Virginia advanced just one yard across three plays, eventually punting the ball away to Duke. The two ACC foes continued to struggle on the offensive front, as Armstrong looked uncomfortable at times in the pocket for the Cavaliers and Blue Devil junior quarterback Chase Brice struggled to get anything going for Duke against a stifling Virginia defense.
However, the Blue Devils finally found a break in the Cavalier defense late in the first quarter, as Duke junior tight end Jake Marwede slipped behind Virginia’s middle linebackers and took a Brice pass 55 yards to put Duke up 10-0.
Sensing a bit of urgency, the Cavaliers responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive ending in Armstrong rushing a four-yard touchdown with 12:33 left in the second quarter, cutting the Blue Devil lead to three. The Shelby, Ohio native totaled 29 rushing yards during the drive, using his dynamic running ability to lead Virginia to its first touchdown of the game.
Following a short Duke drive and a quick punt, the Cavaliers took advantage of great field position at their own 47-yard-line and a later personal foul call on Duke junior safety J’Marick Woods and drove down the field. In part due to some hard-nosed running from junior running back Wayne Taulapapa in the red zone, the Cavaliers took their first lead of the game off of a one-yard rushing touchdown by the Hawaii native, going up 14-10.
Late in the second quarter, Virginia senior kicker Brian Delaney drilled a 32-yard field goal, sending the Cavaliers into halftime up 17-10 following intercepted passes thrown by Brice and Armstrong. After a slow start in the first quarter, the Virginia offense was able to get into a rhythm, scoring 17 unanswered points across three drives in the second frame.
“Even when we were down, it seemed like everybody was cool, calm, collected,” senior linebacker Zane Zandier said. “We kind of had a feeling that we would win and just had to make plays to pull away.”
Looking to dampen Virginia’s momentum, the Blue Devils came out of the locker room quickly in the third quarter, netting a 47-yard field goal from redshirt freshman kicker Charlie Ham to cut Virginia’s lead to four. Following a stifled Virginia drive, Brice and Armstrong traded interceptions once again and Duke took advantage of the Cavalier starter’s mistake, as Brice and senior tight end Noah Gray connected for a touchdown on the ensuing drive, giving the Blue Devils a 20-17 lead with 5:51 left in the third quarter.
Despite a second quarter where the offense was firing on all cylinders, the Cavaliers were unable to get their passing game going in the third quarter. While accurate on short routes, Armstrong often struggled to target his receivers deep, leading to stalled drives.
Nevertheless, Armstrong regained his poise in the fourth quarter, completing a 39-yard pass to true freshman Lavel Davis Jr. to get the Cavaliers into the redzone. Armstrong followed it up with a pinpoint throw to Davis Jr. in the endzone, catapulting Virginia back on top 24-20. A subsequent interception by senior safety Joey Blount set up great field possession for the Cavaliers’ ensuing drive, and Armstrong found Davis Jr. once again to extend Virginia’s lead to 11 with just under 10 minutes left.
“The same plays he made tonight he’s been making against us [in practice],” Mendenhall said about Davis Jr. “We loved him from the very beginning, and we see a really bright future for him as he learns and grows and develops.”
Recognizing the deficit, Brice looked to go deep on Duke’s next possession, but senior cornerback Nick Grant secured the Virginia defense’s fifth interception of the evening. On the Blue Devils’ following possession, the Cavaliers stifled a Duke fourth-down conversion attempt and Taulapapa scored his second touchdown of the game to give Virginia a 38-20 lead and seal the win.
“As soon as you come here, to Virginia, you get taught to be resilient,” Armstrong said on the tough win. “It manifests in our daily lives — not having any [COVID-19] cases — and it manifests on the field.”
Armstrong was rocky early but recovered in the fourth quarter, throwing for 269 yards and two touchdowns while also posting 47 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. Taulapapa had a career night on the ground, posting 95 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Finally, in what was perhaps the most electric debut of the night, Davis Jr. had four receptions for 101 yards and two touchdowns, potentially solidifying his role as the Cavaliers’ WR2.
Virginia heads to Clemson, S.C. Oct. 3 to face defending ACC champions No. 1 Clemson at Memorial Stadium. Kick-off is set for 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on the ACC Network.