After two thrilling games that ended on the legs of the opposing teams’ kickers, Virginia needed a game where the outcome was never in doubt. Luckily, the Cavaliers (5-2, 3-2 ACC) got one, defeating Duke 48-0. Virginia has had the Blue Devils’ (3-4, 0-3 ACC) number as of late, winning the last six matches before Saturday's clash, and the trend continued on a rainy Charlottesville afternoon to get the Cavaliers one more step towards bowl eligibility.
After receiving the ball to start the game, Virginia fans certainly saw a welcome sight when junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s first two passes were caught by sophomore Dontaviyon Wicks. Wicks suffered a brutal hit to the head in last week’s game against Louisville that knocked him out of the game, but the sophomore receiver seemingly didn’t miss a beat coming back to the field. After a promising start to the drive with efficient passing from Armstrong, the Virginia offense stalled just outside the red zone and settled for a 31-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Brendan Farrell.
The Blue Devils’ first possession started off strong as well, with Duke converting a couple of big third downs through the air. The Cavaliers held strong at the goal line, forcing a short field goal. Graduate transfer kicker Matt Alswanger continued the tradition of Virginia opponents, however, as his 25-yard attempt bounced off the left upright to keep the score 3-0.
Virginia’s second drive had a more positive ending, as Armstrong threw a beautiful ball to Wicks in the corner of the end zone to extend the lead to 10. Mother Nature had her first true impact on Virginia’s season shortly after, though, as rain started pouring down during Duke’s next drive. The Cavaliers forced a punt around midfield and had the ball and the lead as the first quarter drew to an end.
Virginia’s drive seemingly ended at midfield to start the second quarter, but a roughing the punter penalty gave the Cavalier offense new life. Virginia took advantage of the second opportunity, and after another superhuman run by senior football player Keytaon Thompson to bring the ball to the one yard line, Thompson punched it in as the Cavaliers took what seemed to be an increasingly insurmountable advantage.
A game marred by mistakes for the Blue Devils continued, as a penalty — their sixth of the day — wiped out a solid run by senior running back Mataeo Durant, and Duke was forced to punt yet again. Virginia responded with another scoring drive, although this time Armstrong made it interesting with a near interception at the goal line. The junior quarterback redeemed himself, however, with a tough seven-yard touchdown run, diving into the end zone to push the score to 24-0.
After Virginia intercepted its first pass since its win over Miami courtesy of senior defensive back De’Vante Cross, Virginia got the ball back again to try and finish out the half strong. A bit of a messy drive, including two fumbles and a dropped pass, led to another field goal by Farrell. The Blue Devils’ tough day offensively continued, as senior Joey Blount intercepted another Holmberg pass to give the Cavaliers one more chance to score before the half. And score they did, with Armstrong finding graduate transfer tight end Jelani Woods for the touchdown. It was a perfect end to a nearly perfect half for both Virginia football and Armstrong, which Coach Bronco Mendnehall mentioned in the postgame press conference.
“I think [Armstrong] is the best quarterback in the ACC,” Mendenhall said. “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”
After trading punts throughout the third quarter, the Blue Devils squandered their best chance to score since the opening drive when a fourth down pass was batted down by senior linebacker Noah Taylor. The Cavalier offense paid off the stop with an impressive six-play, 81-yard scoring drive capped off with graduate transfer running back Devin Darrington’s first touchdown wearing a Virginia uniform.
A fumble by Duke to start the fourth quarter indicated to Virginia fans that Armstrong’s day was done, as freshman quarterback Jay Woolfolk came in to run the Cavalier offense. The talented freshman immediately showed off his legs, rushing for two first downs before senior running back Ronnie Walker Jr. punched it in to bring the score to 48-0, which turned out to be the final score after Duke fumbled the ball at the Virginia one-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Armstrong had yet another strong day, finishing with 364 yards and two touchdowns through the air and another score on the ground, and Wicks was the most productive receiver with 125 yards and a touchdown catch. The running game shined through today as a running-back-by-committee approach resulted in 164 yards on the day.
What was truly the most impressive performance by any unit on the field, however, was the Cavalier defense. Duke came in averaging over 30 points per game, but it didn’t matter to Virginia, as it brought stifling pressure all throughout the afternoon. Four turnovers were forced, and it was the first shutout against Power 5 competition for the Cavaliers since the 2018 Belk Bowl. Junior linebacker Nick Jackson led the team with 11 tackles, and senior cornerback Darius Bratton had two passes defended.
“I’m happy for those kids to have that kind of success today,” Mendenhall said. “Just really pleased with a tangible result and reward for their work.”
Overall, it was by far the most complete game Virginia has played this season. Both the offense and defense were firing on all cylinders, and the match showed just how dangerous the Cavaliers can be to any team.
Virginia stays home next week to face off against Georgia Tech for Family Weekend. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on ACC Network.