DURHAM — Facing fourth-and-1 on the Virginia 47-yard line halfway through the third quarter, Duke defense needed a stop. The Blue Devils had just taken a 21-17 lead. The Cavaliers had rushed for 184 first-half yards and now just needed one.
Duke cornerback Walt Canty saw an opportunity and decided to call an audible.
I wasnt supposed to blitz, but I took a chance, he said. Sometimes they work out.
Canty, a senior, blew by the Virginia fullback and blew up Kevin Parks for a one-yard loss. Duke took over and promptly marched 45 yards in four plays to go ahead 28-17 and put the game out of reach. The Blue Devils went on score a total of 28 unanswered points and shut Virginia out in the second half to win 42-17 to move to 5-1 and 2-0 in the ACC. The long-suffering program is now one win away from reaching a bowl game for the first time in 17 years.
In the immediate aftermath of the game, its hard to find much to criticize. Quarterback Anthony Boone, in his first career start, threw four touchdown passes and finished 18-of-31 for 212 yards. Dukes special teams consistently pinned Virginia (2-4, 0-2) deep in its own territory, as the Cavaliers average starting position on its first half drives was its own 20-yard line. And after allowing all those rushing yards in the first half, the defense limited Virginia to two total in the second half.
I could not be more proud of our group of players and coaches, head coach David Cutcliffe said.
Virginia kicked a late field goal to take a 17-14 lead into halftime, but Dukes defense changed the momentum on the Cavaliers first offensive series. Virginia moved backwards after starting at its own 7-yard line. When Conner Vernon was able to return the punt, which he caught around midfield, 25 yards, and Virginia was flagged for holding, Duke started the drive on the Cavaliers 12-yard line. It just took one play for Boone to find Juwan Thompson for a 12-yard pass. Duke took a 21-17 lead it would not relinquish, thanks in part to big defensive plays like Cantys stop.
We just needed to get guys in the right spot, Canty said. We made a lot of mistakes in the first half, and we knew that they were mistakes we could correct easily.
While Virginia abandoned the run despite the first-half success, the Cavaliers just attempted seven rushes in the third quarter and two in the fourth Duke continued to play to its strength and put on an aerial show. Conner Vernon, who set a new ACC record for career catches with his first-quarter catch, caught two touchdowns, including a 45-yard pass in double coverage with Virginia CB Maurice Canady and S Brandon Phelps within an arms reach.
Any backup in the country is going to practice like hes the starter that week, Boone said. I just had to settle down early.
When Jela Duncan rushed for an 11-yard touchdown after Cantys fourth-down stop with 7:30 remaining in the third quarter to put Duke up 28-14, Boone said he felt could settle down. The offense continued to score, adding Vernons highlight reel grab and a second touchdown by Duncan in the fourth quarter while Virginia quarterback Phillip Sims continued to struggle, consistently overthrowing his intended receivers.
After the game, the talk in the Duke locker room quickly turned toward getting back to work in preparation for Virginia Tech. While the Blue Devils have enjoyed unprecedented success, each win leaves them wanting more.
Were undefeated in the ACC with a 5-1 record, defensive lineman Kenny Anunike said. I think people are starting to understand who Duke really is now.