CHARLOTTESVILLE — With each win this season, the list of areas in which the Virginia football team needs to improve grows shorter and more easily indentifiable, an indicator of progress for a Cavaliers squad that spent its Saturday nights last fall not knowing where to begin to address its many flaws.
Virginia started off Saturday’s game against Duke a little slow on offense, sure. And the Cavaliers could have defended the pass more effectively and done without a few of their six penalties. But that’s about all that kept things close in Virginia’s 31-21 win over the Blue Devils.
This Virginia squad is vastly improved over the one that took the field in 2010; that much has been clear for some time. But with its third straight win, the Cavaliers further rounded into a form befitting their status as an ACC contender.
“I think getting seven wins at this point is big,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said of Virginia, one of two teams still alive for the ACC Coastal Division title. “Last year when you’re 4-8, you’re struggling to get another one. But then when you’re winning some more, they just get bigger.”
The Cavaliers (7-3, 4-2 ACC) are running low on measuring sticks to gauge exactly how much better they are than last year’s squad. The defense is stauncher against the run in the second year since the switch to a 4-3 formation. Virginia’s rushing attack hasn’t been this potent since 2004. The team has won at a higher rate than most observers expected. They’ve even won in November. Twice.
For a program that had not won in November in its past13 tries prior to this season, that had not been bowl eligible since 2007, that had not beaten perennial conference doormat Duke in three straight games, such developments are neither insignificant nor unappreciated.
“This year it’s each individual player focusing on his job and the task at hand,” said fifth-year senior fullback Max Milien, who finished with a team-high four receptions for 62 yards. “Last year it was a whole lot of things. Couldn’t even pinpoint what the problem was. This year we feel like if we can just change a few things, we can be a great offense, a great team, a great defense.”
A season ago, one critical mistake often sparked a flurry of others. On Saturday, Virginia showed that it had learned to limit the effect of its errors.
A first-quarter punt bounced off the leg of true freshman returner Dominique Terrell, and Duke (3-7, 1-5) recovered at the Virginia 26-yard line. But the Cavaliers’ defense held steady. Defensive tackle Matt Conrath blocked his third field goal of the season to keep the Blue Devils off the scoreboard.
Three plays into the second quarter, Duke quarterback Sean Renfree completed a 64-yard touchdown pass to wideout Donovan Varner. Duke later took a 14-7 lead on Juwan Thompson’s one-yard touchdown run after its drive was sustained on a questionable pass interference call on senior safety Corey Mosley on fourth and goal from the 5-yard line.
Less than two minutes into the second half, senior cornerback Chase Minnifield returned his 13th career interception for a touchdown to push Virginia into lead, 21-14.
Duke gained 303 yards through the air, and Virginia’s pass coverage will need to be addressed heading into next Saturday’s game at Florida State. But Duke averaged 1.2 yards per carry on 29 rushing attempts and converted on one-third of its third downs. Defensive coordinator Jim Reid said the Virginia defense has “jelled together” in recent months, and it’s showing.
“Hopefully, it’s just kind of the maturation process,” Virginia Coach Mike London said. “Went back and forth there a little bit, but particularly in the second half, seeing the guys come out and execute and guys making plays . . . those are the type of things that you want to try to hang your hat on as an identity of what your team is about.”