CHARLOTTESVILLE -- After winning its previous two games by comfortable margins, the surging University of Virginia football team showed Saturday that it can thrive under pressure, too. The Cavaliers, who trailed 14-7 late in the first half, rallied to defeat Duke 28-21 on an unseasonably warm afternoon at Scott Stadium. "I think this is more enjoyable than the big ones sometimes, especially against a really good defense like that," UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert said. "It's huge."
A graduate student who's in his second year as the Wahoos' starter, Benkert threw two interceptions in the first quarter, one of which Duke returned for a touchdown. But he persevered and finished the game with solid passing numbers: 24 of 43 for 182 yards and three TDs. He also ran five times for 17 yards. Benkert's teammates showed similar resolve as the `Hoos improved to 4-1 overall and 1-0 in the ACC.
"Our team played hard today," UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, "and they played with resiliency and determination and toughness and grit. It was a challenging game, but we knew it would be. And we knew there would be ups and downs and we knew there'd be lead changes and we knew that [Duke's] defense would be disruptive and cause some problems."
Virginia, idle last weekend, opened the scoring at the 12:08 mark of the first quarter Saturday. Senior safety Quin Blanding picked off a pass deflected by sophomore cornerback Bryce Hall and returned the interception 58 yards for a touchdown. That set the tone for a stellar defensive effort by the `Hoos, who held the Blue Devils (4-2, 1-2) to 255 yards Saturday.
"We always say we're going to be a defensive football team," said senior linebacker Micah Kiser, who had 10 tackles. "Coach Mendenhall's a defensive coach. Holding an ACC opponent to 255 yards, that's awesome on defense, and we think we can get better."
The final minutes were tenser than they needed to be for Virginia. A penalty on Doni Dowling after his second touchdown reception -- the senior wide receiver was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after turning a somersault in celebration -- forced the Cavaliers to kick off from their 20-yard line. Shaun Wilson returned Brian Delaney's kick 68 yards to the UVA 12, and the Devils scored four plays later to make it a one-touchdown game with 6:14 left.
The score was still 28-21 when Duke got the ball back with 3:14 to play. The Blue Devils drove from their 20-yard line to the UVA 30, but on third-and-6, true freshman linebacker Charles Snowden sacked quarterback Daniel Jones for a 10-yard loss. On fourth down, Jones' pass fell incomplete, and the `Hoos exhaled as their fans celebrated in the stands.
"Nothing's easy," said Mendenhall, also UVA's defensive coordinator, "but that's where our program is and that's what we're battling through. And I was proud of our players for the resiliency they showed and have shown, and it's fun to see them smile, it's fun to see them happy, it's fun to see them exhausted but also have a tangible outcome that they can look to, to justify and to continue the momentum that they're generating."
Benkert said: "I think that's good that we're showing those steps that we've taken from last year. We were in a tight game the entire game, and we were able to overcome early adversity, so I think that shows a lot about what our team is really made of." The victory was UVA's second straight over Duke. The Cavaliers' win at Wallace Wade Stadium last year ended their 17-game road losing streak.
In that game, Duke's Jones threw five interceptions and lost a fumble. On Saturday, he completed only 14 of 42 passes for 124 yards and one TD, with two interceptions. Junior cornerback Juan Thornhill had UVA's other pick. "That's just our defense," Blanding said when asked about the Cavaliers' success against Jones. "I can't give away too many secrets, but that's just how we play."