Blue Devils suffer ‘huge setback’ as Virginia shoves them around in shocking loss

David Cutcliffe believed his team was ready for an important ACC game.

His players walked into Scott Stadium Saturday to face Virginia, the preseason Coastal Division favorite who had an identical record as the Blue Devils when the game started.

To Cutcliffe’s amazement and to the dismay of his players, Duke played like it had no business on the same field as Virginia.

Duke’s five turnovers would have doomed it to a loss against nearly any opponent. Add Virginia’s dominating physical play into the mix, and the result was a 48-14 loss that left Duke wondering what hit it.

“Certainly, a huge setback for us tonight,” Cutcliffe said after the game. “To be honest, a little bit of a shock factor. Everybody is hurting.”

A top-25 team until it lost back-to-back games to Notre Dame and Miami, Virginia (5-2, 3-1 ACC) emphatically ended that two-game losing streak and re-established itself as the team to beat in the division race.

Duke (4-3, 2-2) thought it could be the team to beat the Cavaliers on Saturday. Once play began, though, it became obvious that was not the case.

It came down to football’s simplest form.

“Here’s the thing that has to be repaired most,” Cutcliffe said. “Blocking and tackling. Period. No matter what you run no matter what you call offensively, inside or outside, we did not consistently block them. Not a schematic issue. Just didn’t get it done. That’s my responsibility.”

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Virginia’s defense has its way with Duke

Duke converted just 2 of 14 third-down attempts. It rushed 41 times for 132 yards, well below its season average of 182.8 yards per game. The Blue Devils gained 3.2 yards per carry compared to the 4.2 yards it averaged over the season’s first six games.

Over the first nine times Duke possessed the ball, the Blue Devils produced as many first downs (three) and turnovers. They netted 64 total yards.

Virginia’s defense simply had its way with Duke while building a 27-0 lead.

“You have to give them credit,” Harris said. “They had a good game plan defensively. I think they did a good job getting pressure on us on passing downs and a good job penetrating the line of scrimmage on run plays. They played a good game all around.”

It wasn’t as if Virginia had made a habit of collecting turnovers this season. The five Duke committed matched what Virginia’s opponents had produced over the season’s first six games.

Two of the Duke mistakes were interceptions on poorly thrown Harris passes. He was flushed out of the pocket on one third-down throw and, instead of firing it out of bounds, he threw it into the arms of Virginia’s Brenton Nelson. In the third quarter, Harris overthrew tight end Noah Gray after the score became lopsided. Virginia’s Joey Blunt made the easy pick.

But the three fumbles Duke lost had to do, once again, with how Virginia simply beat the Blue Devils up. Deon Jackson, Matao Durant and Harris all lost fumbles while being tackled.

Duke’s defense ‘terrific at times’

Duke’s defense held its own for as long as it could.

Leonard Johnson intercepted a Bryce Perkins pass in the end zone to keep the game scoreless in the first quarter.

After Harris’ first interception, Virginia failed to get a first down after starting at the Duke 21 and had to settle for a field goal to lead 10-0.

The defense broke after Cutcliffe had the offense stay on the field on fourth-and-1 from the Blue Devils 34. Harris was stopped for no gain, giving Virginia the ball with yet another short field.

The Cavaliers needed eight plays to cover that 34 yards, but finally did in when Perkins scored on a 1-yard run putting Virginia up 17-0 at halftime.

“Defensively we played terrific at times,” Cutcliffe said. “The things that we didn’t do there were tackle well enough. Yards after first contact were way too many.”

While Duke struggled on third downs offensively, Virginia converted 7 of 15 to keep its drives moving.

In the third quarter Duke came completely unraveled as three of the offense’s five possessions ended in turnovers. Virginia started in Duke territory three times and also scored on Joe Reed’s 95-yard kickoff return as part of a 24-point outburst in the period.

So now Duke has to gather itself to get ready for an emotional game at rival North Carolina on Saturday.

Unlike the five-game losing streak Duke is now mired in against Virginia, the Blue Devils should have confidence against UNC. Duke owns wins in five of the last seven games, including three in a row.

But, remember when boxer Mike Tyson said everyone has a plan until he’s punched in the mouth? That’s what Duke could be facing at UNC on Saturday.

The Blue Devils felt confident in their preparation and practice work heading into Virginia but left battered and bloodied.

Will Duke have the fortitude to perform better in blocking and tackling against the Tar Heels?

That’s what Cutcliffe and the players will start their work on at Sunday’s practice.

“You try to heal people emotionally,” Cutcliffe said. “We have to be at our best (Sunday), be at our best Monday, Tuesday. I’m not just talking about on the football field. I’m talking completely. Then on the football field you simply go back to fundamentals to be successful on both sides of the ball and the kicking game.”

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.