by Mike Potter
Today’s opponent is Virginia (4-4, 1-3 ACC), which has won two straight games but has also lost two straight in this series.
Virginia’s coach is Mike London, who directed Richmond to a victory over the Blue Devils last season in Durham.
The crowd is perhaps smaller than expected because of the morning rains, but by kickoff time it’s at least partly sunny and in the high 50s.
It’s “College Football Day” across the country. And the teams exchange a mass pregame handshake as part of a show of sportsmanship across the ACC.
It turns out to be a great day for football, as the Blue Devils win 55-48 in one of the most entertaining games ever.
Duke has little trouble scoring on its first drive. Quarterback Sean Renfree, who was an uncanny 28-for-30 in the road upset of Navy last week, hits a wide-open tight end Cooper Helfet in stride for a 30-yard touchdown connection to end an eight-play, 30-yard march. Will Snyderwine adds the boot.
And the Blue Devils get a big break just three plays later, as Ross Cockrell intercepts a Marc Verica pass and returns it to the Duke 2. Backup quarterback and goal-line/short yardage specialist Brandon Connette takes it in himself on the next play, and Snyderwine’s placement puts the hosts up 14-0 with just 4:28 gone.
Virginia cuts the lead in half exactly four minutes later, as Keith Payne bursts up the middle for 11 yards to paydirt and the completion of a 12-play, 86-yard march. Robert Randolph’s kick makes it 14-7 with 6:32 left in the period.
But the Blue Devils come right back. On third-and-2 Connette takes advantage of dominant blocking on the left side and sprints for a 21-yard score to end a 10-play, 72-yard drive. Snyderwine makes it 21-7 with 2:22 left in the first.
Virginia strikes back, as kicker Randolph takes the pitch from Jacob Hodges on a fake field-goal attempt and goes around right end untouched for 20 yards to finish a 13-play, 91-yard possession. Randolph adds the kick and it’s 21-14 at 5:04.
Duke comes back to get a 30-yard Snyderwine field goal to make it 24-14 with 3:52 left in the half.
But Virginia gets even closer by halftime, as Verica hits Payne from nine yards out to finish a nine-play, 73-yard march with 24 seconds left before the break. Randolph’s try makes it 24-21 at the half.
The Cavaliers take the lead on their first possession of the second half when Verica hits Kris Burd for a 19-yard touchdown strike to end the nine-play, 96-yard possession. Randolph’s boot makes it 27-24 with 9:48 left in the third.
Back come the Blue Devils, with Donovan Varner taking a handoff from the slotback spot and going around left end from 11 yards out for the score to finish the 10-play, 72-yard march at 6:16.
Cockrell’s second interception of the day, at the Duke 22, stops a Virginia drive and set up another Snyderwine field goal with 17 seconds left in the third to make it 34-28.
And the Blue Devils stretch it to 40-28 on Renfree’s one-yard plunge with 12:28 left, ending a four-play, 14-yard drive set up by a Walt Canty interception. Snyderwine kicks again.
Virginia closes the gap to five on Perry Jones’ reception from Verica to end a nine-play, 78-yard possession. Randolph kicks.
But Renfree answers with 6:08 to go, scrambling for a 37-yard touchdown to finish an eight-play, 80-yard drive with Snyderwine adding the boot to make it 47-35. Connette’s two-point conversion attempt fails.
Virginia goes 75 yards in seven plays as Verica hits Inman from 10 yards out and Randolph kicks with 4:40 left.
Then disaster hits for Duke, as Desmond Scott fumbles and Nick Jenkins recovers for Virginia at the Blue Devil 28. Four plays later Payne scores from six yards out before Verica’s conversion run fails.
But Scott atones with a 35-yard run around left end, scoring with 40 seconds left at the end of a 10-play, 91-yard drive that includes a 32-yard pass from Renfree to Varner on fourth-and-18. Connette adds the conversion run, and after Virginia can’t move the ball any more on four tries from the Duke 39.
Duke finishes with 489 yards total offense, including 230 on the ground, to 643 for Virginia.
Renfree completes 17 of 29 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown and runs for two more. Scott carries 17 times for 97 yards and the score. Connette carries 12 times for 81 yards and his two touchdowns, while Helfet catches seven for 122 yards.
Verica completes 24 of 46 for 417 and four touchdowns, but is intercepted thrice. Inman catches 10 for 239 yards and his touchdown reception. Payne carries 22 times for 124 yards and has three total touchdowns.
They said it …
Duke coach David Cutcliffe: “Today was unbelievable. Those young men deserve to win. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but both teams played well and played well enough to win. We were fortunate enough to get off to a good start and had a great finish. Sometimes that’s what you do to win football games. … We had six rushing touchdowns (and) that’s one of the things I believe in and it’s one of the reasons we were able to win the game. We ran the ball better than they ran the ball in the second half. That was critical.”
London: “The fourth and 20 — you don’t let them throw the ball behind you. There was one of those quarterback runs when we had (Renfree) in the grasp, and he got away from us and that led to one of those touchdowns. Like I said, it was unfortunate.”
Renfree: “We’ll take the win any way we can get it. No matter how many points you have to score, it’s nice that we can put up points when we need to. It says a lot about our team to come back like that and keep fighting all the way to the end. We have some good momentum going forward. We’re playing some very good teams, but we’re looking forward to it and look to finish out strong.”
Scott: “Once I got to about the 5 I knew I could dive to the pylon. I was pretty good in geometry in high school and I knew the angle I had on the guy and I could dive (for the winning touchdown), so that’s what I did.”
What does it all mean?
That Duke’s long-shot bowl hopes are alive and the November jinx is over. And that Virginia needs two wins to be bowl-eligible.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Out of a list of about eight plays, it’s Scott’s winning touchdown.
Virginia leads 32-20.
Duke: Won 2.
Virginia: Lost 1.
Boston College at Duke, Nov. 13, noon.
Maryland at Virginia, Nov. 13, 3:30 p.m.