DURHAM, N.C. — After Virginia played a game it might want to forget, Duke senior wide receiver Conner Vernon described Saturday as a perfect day.
Vernon caught two touchdown passes and set the Atlantic Coast Conference record for career receptions, helping Duke crush the Cavaliers, 42-17.
Just as important in Vernon’s mind was the fact the Blue Devils improved to 5-1 on the season and 2-0 in the ACC, giving the program its best start since the 1994 team won its first seven games.
“You can’t ask for much more,” Vernon said.
After gaining 321 yards of total offense in the first half, Virginia (2-4, 0-2) could only muster two yards rushing and five first downs after halftime.
“Nothing happened in the third quarter,” Virginia Coach Mike London said. “They scored too many points, we didn’t get any points. It was frustrating on both sides — I’m talking about offense and defensively. We’ve got to carry the momentum of halftime and our lead, and they moved the ball on us and ended up scoring points and we didn’t answer. We didn’t respond.”
In Virginia sophomore Phillip Sims’s first career start, he was 21 for 42 for 268 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Former starter Michael Rocco was 2 for 4 for seven yards.
Meanwhile, Duke’s passing game carried the day.
With his seven catches for 93 yards on the afternoon, Vernon has 239 receptions in his career. He surpassed Clemson’s Aaron Kelly as the ACC’s all-time leader in career receptions when he made a catch for minus-two yards in the first quarter. The senior also hauled in a 37-yard touchdown on the Blue Devils’ second drive, and his 45-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter put Duke up 18 points.
Duke starting quarterback Sean Renfree missed the game with an injured right elbow. His replacement, Anthony Boone, threw four touchdown passes in his first start.
The sophomore passed for 212 yards without an interception.
“It was a big thing for me,” Boone said. “I had a little [bit of] jitters at first, but once I calmed down and settled in, I feel like I executed pretty well.”
The key stretch of the game came early in the third quarter.
The Cavaliers had a 17-14 halftime lead on the strength of a first half where they averaged 7.1 yards per rush and totaled 184 yards on the ground.
After going without any yards on its first drive of the second half, Virginia had to punt from its own 5-yard line. Vernon returned the punt all the way to the Cavaliers’ 22, and a holding penalty that was added on to the punt return gave Duke the ball at Virginia’s 12.
Boone then lofted a swing pass to a wide-open Juwan Thompson for a touchdown on the Blue Devils’ first play of the drive, giving Duke a 21-17 advantage.
“I feel like that was a huge turn in momentum,” Duke offensive lineman Dave Harding said.