Another slow start, penalties and blunders doom Virginia in lopsided loss at Duke

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: Duke Athletics

For the third-straight road game this season, Virginia started slow and paid the price at rain-soaked Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday night, watching its seven-year dominance of Duke wash away in a 38-17 loss.

In all three of their losses this season, the Cavaliers didn’t answer their wake-up call until it was too late and couldn’t dig themselves out of their deficit.

At Illinois, Billy Kemp IV fumbled a punt return that turned into a quick 7-3 Illini lead, a lead that blossomed to 21-3 in an eventual 24-3 loss. At Syracuse last week, the Orange scored on their opening drive as UVA missed back-to-back field goal attempts before falling behind 10-0, fumbled and trailed 13-0 before going into the half at 16-0 in a winnable game that ended 22-20, Syracuse.

Overall, in the trio of defeats, Virginia has been outscored 58-10 in the first half. It was no different in Durham, with UVA committing discipline and special-teams blunders that led to a 21-7 halftime deficit.

After a pooch punt by quarterback Brennan Armstrong pinned Duke at its own 13, the Blue Devils methodically moved down the field, strongly aided by back-to-back personal fouls by defensive tackles Aaron Faumui and Ben Smiley III, handing Duke 30 free yards to the UVA 19. From there, Devils QB Riley Leonard passed for a TD and a 7-0 lead. On UVA’s next two possessions, punter Daniel Sparks had his kick blocked and eight plays later (plus a roughing-the-passer call on Jack Camper) Duke scored again to make it 14-0. Cavalier kickoff-return man Demick Starling fumbled on the next play and in eight plays, it was 21-0.

Game, set, match.

While Virginia managed to fight its way back into contention in the second half, this team doesn’t seem to possess the ability to produce points with the lightning-like proficiency that last year’s squad had.

Coach Tony Elliott can’t figure out why his team seems so disinterested in the first 30 minutes of games.

“I don’t know,” Elliott said of the inefficient first halves. “If you’ve got [an answer] please let me know, because I swear it’s almost like these guys have got to get behind before they get started.”

Virginia did manage to put together an impressive 88-yard drive to end the half on a good note, but failed to keep the momentum, going three-and-out to start the second half.

Instead, the Cavaliers watched as Duke put together another scoring drive with Leonard rushing for his second TD of the night and a 28-7 lead.

There were times that quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who has gotten off to an unexpected rocky start this season, resembled the Armstrong of old, but he didn’t get a lot of help.

While he tied Shawn Moore for second place all-time on UVA’s career touchdown passes list (his 55th came on a 9-yard toss to running back Perris Jones on that late, first-half drive) Armstrong’s completion percentage once again hovered around the 50-percent mark.

He connected on a mere 19-of-37 pass attempts for 202 yards and a score (he had five passes batted down by Duke’s handsy defense). It was his 21st game of throwing for 200 or more yards, making him the all-time UVA leader in that category, but this one paled in comparison to last year’s big performances when he led the nation in passing for most of the season.

Elliott said the offense was coming along, just not fast enough for his taste.

“I think Brennan was a lot more comfortable in the pocket, stayed in the pocket,” Elliott said. “He was stepping up in the pocket when he delivered some strikes. There were times he had a bunch of time to find guys open and that he looked as comfortable as he’s looked thus far, looked like the Brennan of old.”

In fact, Elliott embraced his quarterback at game’s end and apologized.

“I said, ‘Man, I apologize. I’ve gotta do a better job of helping you by getting all these [teammates] to buy in,’” Elliott said.

Virginia was its own worst enemy, shooting itself in the foot time and again on the rainy night, something that could cost players their position, the coach threatened after the game. Eliminate the careless blunders and Virginia would have had a chance, but instead fell to 2-3 on the season and 0-2 in the ACC.

It was a game where the fan base felt the season could turn around, facing a team the Cavaliers had beaten seven straight times (48-0 last year), with an attractive menu of possible wins lying directly ahead on the schedule with Louisville and Georgia Tech coming up.

Now, it appears, every game is going to be an uphill fight if something doesn’t change.

Virginia’s defense, which had been playing well, faltered, giving up 248 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Then again, defensive coordinator John Rudzinski’s unit was on the field for more than 36 minutes in the game.

Rudzinski had been somewhat successful defending the run this season by loading the tackle box and simply outnumbering the blockers. Duke used its other backs to help open holes, and the Cavaliers simply wore down over time.

“There were some third-down opportunities for us to get off the field that I would have liked to fit the run better,” Rudzinski said. “We can’t have penalties and give opponents free yards, and we did that today. We didn’t do a good job in the red zone. We have got to force field goals.”

Offensively, part of the gameplan was to get the ball to slot receivers Kemp (back after a two-game absence) and Keytaon Thompson out in space early in the game to see if Duke could tackle them. Kemp was injured early and had only two receptions for 8 yards, while Thompson (targeted a team-high 11 times) had six catches for 61 yards.

Meanwhile, Duke’s defense bottled up Virginia’s running game, holding the Cavaliers to 93 yards with the longest play covering only 15 yards.

Elliott said earlier in the week that the offense was being held back by the inability to connect on deep throws, and that remained the case. There were only two completions of more than 20 yards, a 24-yard pass to Dontayvion Wicks on UVA’s first scoring drive, and a 34-yard pass to Lavel Davis Jr. on the last scoring drive.

Now, Virginia must regroup before next Saturday’s home game against Louisville, a team also experiencing a season below expectations.

“We’re going to take this bus ride home, we just lost and that’s on us,” Elliott said. “We can’t blame anybody else. Tip your hat to Duke and we’ll go back to work on Monday.”