DURHAM, N.C. — Virginia has much less in the playbook — and is doing so much more.
With a defensive game plan that first-year coach Bronco Mendenhall called “the simplest plan we had yet,” the Cavaliers intercepted five passes and forced six turnovers in a 34-20 victory over Duke on Saturday.
The five interceptions tied the program record, last accomplished against Miami in 2010.
“The execution, it matches the current level of our players’ understanding of the playbook,” Mendenhall said. “I’m still getting to learn them. They’re still getting to know me.”
Kurt Benkert threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns, finishing 23 of 41 with touchdowns covering 28 yards to David Eldridge, 12 yards to Olamide Zaccheaus and 3 yards to Richard Burney.
Albert Reid also had a short TD run to help the Cavaliers (2-3, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) snap their 17-game road losing streak.
“The execution appears, I think, to all of us to be improving, and the culture as we all know, was the emphasis to begin,” Mendenhall said. “It’s starting. … But it’s fun to see the players happy. It’s fun to see the players see that it’s coming.”
Joseph Ajeigbe’s 4-yard touchdown run with 11:34 left pulled Duke to 27-20, and the Blue Devils had the ball inside Virginia territory twice after that but were stopped on downs both times.
Daniel Jones threw five interceptions for Duke (2-3, 0-2), and fumbled in his own end zone with 4:24 left after a hard hit from Jordan Mack. Eli Hamback recovered for the touchdown that put the Cavaliers back up by two touchdowns.
Virginia: These Cavaliers looked nothing like the crew that was routed by Richmond in the opener, made Mendenhall a winner in his first ACC game and earned their first road win since a 2012 rout at North Carolina State.
“Richmond doesn’t even feel like this year,” Mendenhall said.
This time, they did it with defense. After failing to force a turnover in its first two games, Virginia now has nine takeaways in the last three weeks. Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall had two interceptions apiece.
Duke: The Blue Devils pretty much squandered whatever goodwill they generated by beating Notre Dame last week, largely because they couldn’t take care of the ball. Jones, who threw three interceptions in his first four games, surpassed that total by throwing four of them in 20 minutes of the first half.
Coach David Cutcliffe bristled at a reporter who asked if he’d considered replacing Jones with backup Parker Boehme, saying that “if I would have considered it, I would have done it, OK?”
With this loss, it’s fair to wonder if Duke — which still faces road games at No. 3 Louisville, No. 14 Miami and Pittsburgh — will find the four more wins it needs to qualify for its fifth straight bowl game.
PLAY OF THE DAY
Duke trailed by a touchdown with 98 yards to go and less than 5 minutes to play. It set up a possible Joe Montana-type moment for Jones, who was looking to atone for the four interceptions he’d thrown at that point. Scanning to his left for a receiver, he never saw Mack flying in from the right side. Mack leveled him and knocked the ball free, and Hamback pounced on it for the touchdown that sealed it, and Jones threw his fifth interception on the Duke possession that followed.
Benkert has thrown for 757 yards and eight touchdowns in his last two games. The East Carolina transfer set the program record with 421 yards against Central Michigan , and was on pace to break that mark before the Cavaliers slowed things down in the fourth quarter. “He’s a throw-first guy,” Mendenhall said, “and I think he’s good at it.”
Virginia: It’s all ACC opponents remaining for the Cavaliers, who have an idle weekend before playing host to Pittsburgh on Oct. 15.
Duke: The Blue Devils step back out of league play to host Army, but then they have only six days to get ready for a Friday night visit to Louisville on Oct. 14.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org