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Virginia football drops another ACC matchup against Duke

A 21-point hole suppressed any hope of a Cavalier comeback, as the Duke offense proved too powerful throughout.

<p>Senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong sneaks into the end zone for a touchdown, one of the few bright spots of the night for the Virginia offense.</p>

Senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong sneaks into the end zone for a touchdown, one of the few bright spots of the night for the Virginia offense.

After dropping a gut-wrenching game to Syracuse, Virginia once again departed Charlottesville Saturday night to take on Duke in the 74th all-time meeting between the two schools. The Blue Devils (4-1, 1-0 ACC) — who had not beaten the Cavaliers (2-3, 0-2 ACC) since 2014 — capitalized on an ineffective Virginia offense and sped out to an early and insurmountable lead. To the dismay of Virginia fans, senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong could not re-establish his footing from last year — posting only 202 yards and a 51 percent completion rate in the loss.

In contrast to some previous Virginia matchups, the first quarter proved to be the most offensive-friendly — to one side at least. The Blue Devils — regaining possession after a punt from Virginia — strode down the field on the shoulders of sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard and took a 7-0 lead with just over seven minutes remaining in the first quarter. The Cavaliers squandered an opportunity to keep pace with Duke after a failed third-down conversion, and the Blue Devils continued to apply some offensive pressure.

Starting with the ball from its own 42-yard line, Duke leaned on the run to catalyze what would be a second consecutive touchdown drive in the first quarter. A nine-play sequence only featuring the run game wore down the Cavalier defense, as Leonard and junior running back Jaylen Coleman combined for 37 yards to give Duke a 14-0 lead. Moreover, disaster would strike for Virginia as it desperately looked for a spark.

On the kickoff return, junior wide receiver Demick Starling made his way through several Duke tacklers until being upended, resulting in a fumble in Virginia territory. The Blue Devils — starting from the Cavaliers’ 41-yard line — methodically moved the ball down the field and captured a 21-0 lead with 10:25 to play in the second quarter. At this point in the game, Virginia had tallied only 48 total yards and conceded three touchdowns. 

A silver lining appeared in a late half touchdown from the Cavaliers, who marched 83 yards in over two and a half minutes to bring the game back to a two-touchdown deficit. Senior running back Perris Jones — the Cavaliers’ go-to guy out of the backfield this season — took a short pass from Armstrong into the end zone, as Virginia headed into halftime with some points on the board.

Despite a fumble forced by the Cavaliers in the third quarter, the defense could not contain the Duke offensive attack. Two touchdown drives by the Blue Devils — with a Virginia freshman kicker Will Bettridge field goal in between — showcased their balanced attack, as Leonard gashed the Cavaliers on the ground while mixing in some throws to keep the defense honest. A 59-yard touchdown run — pushing the score to 35-10 in favor of Duke — from sophomore running back Jaquez Moore only exacerbated the Cavaliers’ struggles on the defensive side of the ball — unusual compared to their early season success. 

Virginia would score another touchdown after a long gain from junior wide receiver Lavel Davis and a five-yard Armstrong run to cap it off, yet the damage had already been done. Already carrying an 18-point lead after the Virginia touchdown, the Blue Devils would convert a field goal that would be the final points of the game. The Cavaliers thus suffered a 38-17 loss on the road — their second consecutive ACC defeat of the season. 

There were not many positive takeaways from the Cavaliers’ third blemish on their record. Armstrong — who scored only two touchdowns in the defeat — once again struggled to re-establish a rapport with his receivers. Senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson led the charge with six catches for 61 yards, while Davis and junior wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks only combined for 85 yards. The aforementioned Jones was arguably the most consistent player for the Cavaliers on Saturday, having displayed his pass catching and rushing ability in an offense that has often been stagnant. 

A chief concern also manifested itself in the defense’s play, as defensive coordinator John Rudzinski’s unit had not given up more than 24 points in a game this season. The Cavaliers could not stop the balanced attack of the Blue Devils and the extra wrinkle of Leonard’s rushing ability. When Louisville comes to town on Saturday, Virginia will meet a dual-threat weapon in senior quarterback Malik Cunningham — who, despite Louisville’s struggles, has tallied 457 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Stopping the run will ultimately be the priority for a team who has drastically improved in the secondary.

Louisville (2-3, 0-3 ACC) will travel to Charlottesville Saturday to face the Cavaliers, who are also looking for their first win in ACC play. Kickoff is scheduled for noon, and the game will be televised on ACC Network. 

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