In some ways, the 20-13 win over Virginia was about what Duke didn’t do.
“When you don’t give up a sack, when you don’t give up a tackle for loss, when you don’t give up a turnover, guess what, you’re going to win a bunch of games by a touchdown or so, even when it’s not perfect,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “And, you know what: It is a big ole W. A capital W.”
No, the bowl-eligible Blue Devils (6-1, 2-1 ACC) weren’t perfect. Yes, the offense had some whiplash-quick three-and-outs on offense, and, yes, the defense gave up 465 yards (compared with Duke’s 334). But Duke did enough to knock off the first-place Cavaliers (4-2, 2-1), and now the Blue Devils have a claim on the top spot in the ACC Coastal Division race.
Duke also avoided the unspeakably stupid mistakes, accomplishing something Virginia could not. Most damaging for the Cavaliers was a delay of game penalty on their most important play of the game. Down by seven with 2:19 to go, Virginia was driving and faced a do-or-die 4th-and-7 from the Duke 35-yard line.
And the Cavaliers – with one timeout remaining – didn’t snap the ball before the play clock hit zero.
“They have a 40-second clock, and they have a 25-second clock. There are things that you have to teach your guys to look at being run down and be made aware of,” said Virginia coach Mike London, explaining the basic rules of college football. “We just didn’t have that focus that we needed to make sure that we could avoid a penalty like that.”
The ensuing last-ditch pass attempt from Matt Johns on 4th-and-12 broke down quickly, and Duke got the ball back with 2:14 remaining. The Blue Devils did turn in their fifth three-and-out of the game on the ensuing drive but left Virginia with too little time, too far away from the end zone.
Offense was sparse, for both teams, in the second half.
After sitting out the first half as he waited for his turn to come up in the rotation, running back Shaquille Powell keyed a 68-yard field goal drive to start the third quarter, giving Duke a 13-10 lead. Then Duke proceeded to earn just one first down on its next three drives without Powell, and Virginia tied it up in the process, and that’s how the game remained into the fourth quarter.
Cutcliffe went to first-year offensive coordinator Scotty Montgomery and told him Powell was his hot running back, and Powell proved his coach right on his next opportunity. Powell rushed for 32 yards on four carries as Duke marched 65 yards down the field and scored the only touchdown of the second half.
“He came in with an emotion and fire to him,” left tackle Takoby Cofield said of Powell, whose younger brother is currently in the hospital with a malignant tumor. “You could tell on those first couple of runs that he hit that he had an extra bounce to him. We knew we needed to execute at that point anyway, but just seeing him and feeding off of his energy was great.”
Cutcliffe threw out the word “clutch” to describe Duke’s play – the most clutch play on that touchdown drive (and of the game, arguably) was a perfectly executed zone-read by quarterback Anthony Boone. The fifth-year senior faked the handoff to Powell, who was swarmed by the Virginia defense – but Boone kept the ball and bounced out down the left sideline, running 23 yards down to the Virginia 7-yard line. The drive was capped by a 3-yard jump pass from Thomas Sirk to tight end David Reeves, which was successful because the Cavaliers went all-in on stopping the run, leaving Reeves open in the back of the end zone.
“When the running game is working, it’s obvious that the passing game is going to open up for us,” wide receiver Jamison Crowder said. “Right now, we have to find that balance of running game and passing game for our offense to continue to flow.”
Duke’s offensive line turned in a commendable performance all game – the Cavaliers entered the contest with 19 takeaways, 23 sacks and 46 tackles for loss. And, as Cutcliffe correctly pointed out, Virginia notched not one of those on Saturday.
“It may not appear like we played a great football game,” Cutcliffe said. “But maybe what I just described to you is a great football game.”