CHARLOTTESVILLE — The cheers, coming loud and long from inside the Virginia football team's locker room, reverberated throughout the corridors beneath the Scott Stadium bleachers. Players were celebrating much more than a defensive stand that preserved the team's third consecutive victory.
In defeating Duke, 28-21, in their ACC opener to move to 4-1 for the first time since 2007, the Cavaliers continued on second-year Coach Bronco Mendenhall's blueprint for revitalizing a program that had lost its way over the last decade-plus. They doubled their win total from last year and with seven games left are within two victories of being eligble for their first bowl game since 2011.
"Man, I was overcome by emotion," said Doni Dowling, a senior wide receiver who revealed he began crying as soon as the offense went in to victory formation to run out the clock. "Just proud to be on this team. It was really powerful, just how this team is this year, just how close we really are, how much we really believe and how hard we work."
Dowling had been watching on the sideline when linebacker Charles Snowden swooped in to sack quarterback Daniel Jones for a 10-yard loss on third and six during Duke's final drive. Jones threw an incomplete pass on fourth down, triggering hugs and high-fives along the Cavaliers' sideline.
The decisive play from Snowden was all the more improbable given the freshman had not played a single snap in the half until he came in on that third down for winded starter Chris Peace, a junior. Snowden, a high school standout at St. Albans in Washington, beat his man into the backfield and wrapped up Jones by the ankles to the delight of the announced crowd of 38,638.
The Cavaliers limited Duke (4-2, 1-2 ACC) to 255 total yards of offense and 5 of 17 on third downs in addition to collecting two interceptions.
"What it says for our staff to put him in," Mendenhall said of Snowden. "Yeah, it's a big deal. A big deal doesn't quite do it justice, does it? You can take whatever liberties you want to make that better than a big deal."
Also of significant consequence is what lies ahead for the Cavaliers, picked in the preseason to finish last in the ACC Coastal Division. None of Virginia's next three opponents own a winning record, and even though two of those games are on the road, the Cavaliers can lean on having dismantled Boise State, 42-23, at Albertsons Stadium on Sept. 22 before an open date last weekend.
The Broncos had lost six times at home before Virginia's emphatic triumph on the blue turf.
Still, despite the positive vibes from beating Duke, the prevailing tenor among the veterans remains cautious optimism. Senior linebacker Micah Kiser, a co-captain, indicated as much by referencing 2014, when he was part of a team that opened 4-2 only to miss out on a bowl berth.
"I've let people know," Kiser said of that swoon three years ago. "We're going to keep this up, and we're not going to let the foot off the gas."
Virginia went ahead 28-14 Saturday for the first two-possession margin by either team, courtesy of quarterback Kurt Benkert's 17-yard completion to Dowling.
The touchdown unfolded on third and three, with Benkert extending the play by scrambling to his left and delivering a precise throw to Dowling (five catches, 52 yards, two touchdowns), who pulled away from cornerback Mark Gilbert to reach the end zone.
On the touchdown, Dowling received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for excessive celebration, forcing the Cavaliers to kick off from their 20-yard line.
Missed tackles on the part of the coverage unit allowed Duke's Shaun Wilson to reel off a 76-yard return to the Virginia 12. Four plays later, the Blue Devils were within the final margin on a four-yard run by backup quarterback Quentin Harris, who took the direct snap up the middle for the touchdown out of a wildcat formation.
The lead swung back to the Cavaliers for good, 21-14, when Benkert completed a five-yard touchdown pass to Dowling with 10:30 to go in the third quarter. Officials initially ruled Dowling's knee to be down short of the goal line but reversed the call on a replay review showing the ball had broken the plane first during the reception.
Virginia had knotted the score at 14 with an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus 45 seconds before halftime.
The first quarter included four turnovers overall, with Duke tying the score at 7 on safety Jeremy McDuffie's 42-yard interception return with 1:15 to play. Virginia also had an interception return for a touchdown courtesy of safety Quin Blanding, who snatched the ball off a carom and raced 58 yards to the end zone in the first quarter for the game's first points.
"I was proud of our players for the resiliency they showed and have shown, and it's fun to see them smile," Mendenhall said. "It's fun to see them happy. It's fun to see them exhausted but also have the tangible outcome that they can look to justify and to continue the momentum they are generating."