Duke’s football team had been in this same spot two years earlier, down 22 points in Scott Stadium and seemingly incapable of stopping Virginia from scoring at will before claiming a comeback win. This time, though, the Blue Devils fell six yards short of a potential game-tying score, extending the downward spiral of the season.
Facing fourth-and-2 at Virginia’s 6-yard line with less than 10 seconds remaining, Duke quarterback Parker Boehme watched his last-gasp pass to a closely defended Anthony Nash fall to the endzone turf, sealing a 42-34 loss to the Cavaliers. The Blue Devils (6-5, 3-4) had regained their composure after falling behind 21-0 in the first quarter to a Virginia team that had struggled to score with any consistency much of the season.
Duke overcame the loss of defensive leader Jeremy Cash, who was ejected with 3:29 left in the third quarter on a targeting penalty on a headshot to Virginia quarterback Matt Johns, and the Blue Devils managed to mount a pair of defensive stands in the fourth quarter to set up two touchdown drives putting them within range of tying the game. But for the fourth week in a row, the result was the same for Duke: a dispiriting loss.
“I couldn’t see if their guy got a hand on it or not,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said of Virginia safety Wilfred Wahee’s fourth-down play to break up Boehme’s fourth-down pass. “It was a bang-bang play, but we had a real shot at it.”
Cutcliffe and his players said they saw welcome signs of life in the second-half comeback that was fueled by Boehme (178 yards passing, one passing TD and one rushing) and fellow quarterback Thomas Sirk (207 yards passing and one touchdown), who returned to start Saturday. A month ago, however, Duke was ranked and had designs on the Coastal Division championship and a spot in the ACC title game. That was before the lateral-fueled, last-second loss to Miami that pushed Cutcliffe’s team into this four-game skid. A bowl game awaits, after next weekend’s regular-season finale against Wake Forest, but it’s hardly the November that Duke anticipated.
“I feel like we’ve got a lot of young guys, a lot of guys who love to compete. We just have some things we need to clean up,” said DeVon Edwards, who put Duke on the board at the end of the first quarter with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. “Little mistakes are costing us, but I like how we fought back and everybody was trying to win in the second half … We finally got some energy, so I feel like we’re starting to turn the ship around a little bit.”
Duke’s ship was in dry dock most of the first quarter until Edwards’ score, as the Cavaliers (4-7, 3-4 ACC) hit quickly on three scores. Virginia racked up 194 yards in the first quarter alone, including 140 passing yards for quarterback Matt Johns, who finished with two touchdown passes and a career-high 344 passing yards. The Cavaliers opened the scoring with a six-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a halfback option pass from Olamide Zaccheaus to Evan Butts. The Blue Devils’ ensuing possession ended with a Sirk interception on an endzone pass to Chris Taylor, and Virginia hit back immediately with a 45-yard pass.
That was followed by a 26-yard scoring run by UVa (and former UNC) wide receiver T.J. Thorpe. Down two scores, Duke brought in Boehme at quarterback, but Boehme fumbled on a hit by Virginia defensive end Mike Moore, giving Virginia the ball back on the Blue Devils’ 23 yard line. Three plays later, Virginia running back Taquan Mizzell ran it in for the third touchdown of the quarter from three yards out.
“Explosive plays hurt us in the first half,” Duke center Matt Skura said. “You’re frustrated when balls are maybe overthrown or something doesn’t go the way you want it to, but you have to understand there’s a next play. You can’t dwell on missed opportunities.”
Skura and the other upperclassmen on Duke turned the memory of their last visit to Charlottesville two years earlier as they started to chip away at Virginia’s lead in the second half. After hitting TJ. Rahming for a 16-yard completion on fourth-and-10, Sirk hit Braxton Deaver on a fade route for a seven-yard score that made it 35-20 with 5:56 remaining in the third quarter.
A Virginia offense that totaled 502 yards (and a career-high three touchdowns for junior running back Taquan Mizzell) mustered one more score on a 50-yard strike from Johns to Olamide Zaccheaus, but then the Blue Devils’ defense began to stiffen.
A 12-yard touchdown pass from Boehme to T.J. Rahming (12 receptions for a game-high 190 yards) with 9:20 left cut Virginia’s lead to 15, and when the Cavaliers sputtered on offense the next possession, Boehme capped a four-play, 68-yard drive with a 1-yard rushing score to make it 42-34 with 7:24 remaining. Virginia was forced to punt with less than a minute left in the game, and Boehme’s 49-yard pass to a diving Nash (five receptions, 104 receiving yards) put them in range for one last, ill-fated shot.
Cutcliffe says they will go back and regroup, but they won’t start second-guessing every miscue and strategic error of the last four games.
“There’s a huge difference in studying football and starting to question everything you’re doing,” Cutcliffe said. “In times of trouble, and in times of losing streaks, a lot of people that aren’t equipped start questioning everything you’re doing, and it’s a bad path to take.
“That doesn’t mean you don’t study [what’s wrong], but I expect our staff to learn each step along the way, myself included to put our kids in the best position to win.”