DURHAM, N.C. — Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” played over the loudspeakers at Wallace Wade Stadium at the end of the third quarter Saturday, surely meant to encourage the trailing Duke Blue Devils, who were playing their homecoming game in front of a scant crowd.
But the Virginia Cavaliers’ season is rooted in belief — in change, in their new coaching staff and in themselves — and they hadn’t been up by two touchdowns on the road for longer than they could remember. So when the chorus rose, it was the Cavaliers who jumped around and waved their arms in a gleeful mass on the 50-yard line.
Virginia snapped a 17-game road losing streak dating from 2012 with a 34-20 victory, sealed when freshman linebacker Jordan Mack pummeled Duke quarterback Daniel Jones in the end zone and defensive end Eli Hanback recovered the fumble with 4:24 remaining.
Bronco Mendenhall, fresh off his first win as Virginia’s coach, won his first ACC game at a venue where the Cavaliers (2-3 overall) had not triumphed since 2006. He called the win another step forward.
“We knew that nothing would be easy, and certainly it’s not going to be going forward,” Mendenhall said. “We’re just, holy cow, we’re just barely at the bottom of this hill looking up. But it’s fun to have at least a little momentum.”
For most of Virginia’s seniors, who could be heard shouting “four years, baby!” while Mendenhall spoke to reporters, Saturday was the first happy return trip to Charlottesville of their careers.
“It feels great,” senior Taquan Mizzell, one leader of the midfield celebration, said. “Oh yeah, the bus ride going to be fun. We going to put the game behind us pretty soon, but — the bus ride’s going to be fun.”
The owner of Virginia’s biggest step forward was Mendenhall’s defense, which forced six turnovers and kept the game in hand after quarterback Kurt Benkert threw his lone interception with 6:24 left in the game and Duke (2-3, 0-2) trailing 27-20.
The defense frazzled Jones into an incomplete pass on fourth and two on Duke’s ensuing drive and then got the clinching touchdown on the Blue Devils’ next possession.
On the series before Benkert’s interception, a Duke drive was stopped at the Virginia 28-yard line when Jones was sacked on fourth down by linebacker Micah Kiser, one of his career-high 18 tackles.
Virginia was missing three cornerbacks on Saturday, with Tim Harris out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury and Darious Latimore and Myles Robinson sidelined with lower-body injuries. But the Cavaliers tied a program record with five interceptions, including two apiece by sophomore Juan Thornhill and freshman Bryce Hall, who was making his first start.
“He was blitzing on that play,” Mendenhall said of Hall’s second interception, a jumping catch in the second quarter. “And he stopped and just intercepted that. That, I mean, that just doesn’t happen. Nor was he coached to do that, that just was like, did he really just do that? I mean, as a first-year? That’s pretty special.”
Benkert, looking more comfortable each game behind an offense willing to stretch the field, completed 23 of 41 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns. His offense looked efficient as ever, going 3 for 3 in the red zone and converting 11 of 21 third downs.
Jones, who threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns last week in a 38-35 upset of Notre Dame, completed 33 of 54 attempts for 324 yards and one touchdown.
Jones opened scoring with a 23-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Rahming with 9:29 left in the first quarter.
But then Benkert, fresh off setting a program record with 421 passing yards last weekend, got going. The transfer quarterback threw for 252 yards in the first half, averaging 19.4 yards per completion and pulling off a few long throws on the move.
The Cavaliers got on the board when hit wide-open sophomore wide receiver David Eldridge with a 28-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the first quarter. The Cavaliers went for a two-point conversion, but Olamide Zaccheaus was tackled short of the end zone on a rushing attempt.
Benkert connected with Eldridge again on Virginia’s next score, stepping up in the pocked to chuck an 84-yard pass to the sophomore and set up Albert Reid’s second-chance rushing touchdown on a short field. Virginia was up 13-10 with 4:01 left in the half.
The Cavaliers got another chance late in the half when Quin Blanding recorded the team’s fourth interception, at the Duke 44. With 12 seconds remaining, Benkert hit Zaccheaus with a 12-yard pass at the edge of the end zone to send the Cavaliers into halftime with a 20-10 lead.
Duke closed to 27-20 with 11:34 left in the game when Jones chucked a 43-yard pass to Quay Chambers on Virginia’s 4 and running back Joseph Ajeigbe rushed home on the next play for the touchdown. From then on, the Cavaliers played lock-down defense.