DURHAM – With a first-time starter at quarterback, several injuries at key positions and a daunting remaining schedule awaiting it, Duke had plenty to worry about heading into its Atlantic Coast Conference home opener.
It was no matter for the Blue Devils, who instead had plenty to like. Duke proved capable in all three phases of the game in a 42-17 victory against Virginia on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“That’s what we’ve been striving for – all three phases,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “For us to win, and I’ve told them this over and over again, we have to be good, not great but good, in all phases.”
Duke (5-1, 2-0 ACC) held the Cavaliers to two yards rushing and no points in the second half, in which it scored 28 unanswered points to turn a once-close game into a blowout.
Anthony Boone threw four touchdowns and no interceptions in place of Sean Renfree, whose arm injury sustained in the game against Wake Forest kept him from taking a snap Saturday.
Boone’s four touchdowns tied a Duke record for a quarterback making his first start, which began with him completing two of his first three passes for scores.
“Obviously, I’m a backup, so I don’t want to go out there and make any mistakes,” Boone said. “I just tried to go out there and make the plays I can, not do too much with the ball.”
Even though Virginia (2-4, 0-2) racked up 461 yards of offense, Duke’s defense was good when it had to be. Virginia moved the ball into Duke territory six times in the final three quarters and came away with a total of three points.
Cavaliers quarterback Phillip Sims was 21-for-42 for 268 yards, but threw two interceptions paired with no touchdowns.
Duke dared Sims to throw the deep ball, and he could not complete it with consistency. Sims missed four times when a receiver beat the secondary and would have scored a touchdown with an accurate pass.
“We knew their quarterback coming in had a very strong arm,” said Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell, who recorded his fourth interception of the season. “He has a great arm, so we didn’t want him to complete deep passes on us.”
A fast-paced start gave the impression that the winner would need to reach 50 points, but the pace slowed considerably.
Both teams scored on their first possessions – a seven-yard run by Virginia running back Perry Jones and a 54-yard touchdown pass from Boone to Jamison Crowder for Duke – before Duke took a slight edge.
Tony Foster picked off Sims at Virginia’s 40 yard-line, setting up another Boone touchdown pass, this one to Conner Vernon, two plays later.
The Cavaliers responded with a 15-play, 86-yard touchdown drive, capped by Jones’ second touchdown run, to tie the score at 14.
Though Virginia dominated on the ground, gaining more than seven yards per carry in the first half, outgaining Duke by 135 yards and holding the ball for almost eight minutes longer, the Cavaliers led at halftime by only three points, 17-14.
Virginia had been content to head into halftime tied at 14 when it ran a simple run up the middle from its own 16 yard-line with 26 seconds remaining in the first half. Jones broke the play for 30 yards, however, changing the Cavaliers’ minds.
Sims completed a 28-yard pass to E.J. Harris on the next play, setting up Drew Jarrett up for a 39-yard field goal as time ran out on the first half.
“We just decided this is not how we play, this not our mentality,” Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “We don’t just go out there and go through the motions, so we decided to go back out there and turn it up.”
Following a good punt from Will Monday that pinned the Cavaliers on their own six yard-line, the Blue Devils’ defense started its change immediately, holding Virginia to a three-and-out on its first second-half possession.
A good return plus a penalty started the Blue Devils’ next drive at the 12 yard-line of Virginia, and it took one play for Boone to find Juwan Thompson for a touchdown. Duke earned another stop, then scored on its next possession to take a 28-17 lead.
The quick adjustment made Virginia a passing team, which it is not.
“That’s good football,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s really good football. … That’s what we’re going to have to continue to build on.”
Virginia gained only 140 yards in the second half and did not score. The Cavaliers finished 4-for-16 on third downs and did not convert any of their three fourth-down tries, including a key fourth-and-one in the third quarter that Duke safety Walt Canty spoiled with a tackle for loss.
The Cavaliers finished with more than five yards per carry, had a 100-yard rusher and surpassed Duke in almost every major category.
All except points.
“Statistics look nice,” Virginia coach Mike London said, “But in the end, all the matters is what it says on the scoreboard.”
A whiteboard in the crowd summed it up for Duke: One win away.
Duke needs only one more victory to be bowl eligible for the first time since the 1994 season.
“I expected to be 5-1,” Duke left guard Dave Harding said. “I was hoping for 6-0, but I know this team hasn’t even reached its full potential yet.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com