1 October 2016: Virginia Cavaliers linebacker Jordan Mack (37) hits Duke Blue Devils quarterback Daniel Jones (17) in the end zone during the second half at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC. The Cavaliers beat the Blue Devils 34-20. - Brian Utesch/Icon Sportswire
Virginia Cavaliers

Duking it out: Young defenders step up for Virginia

Brian Utesch/Icon Sportswire

Virginia entered Saturday’s game at Duke without three cornerbacks who were expected to play a big role on the Cavaliers’ defense this season. With Tim Harris, Miles Robinson and Darious Latimore all injured, UVA went to Durham with only inexperienced freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep at corner.

It’s probably not the way Bronco Mendenhall wanted to make his ACC debut against a David Cutcliffe-coached Blue Devils squad apt to throw the ball all over the field. Yet, it turned out the Cavaliers had nothing to fear with their young secondary, which led the way to a 34-20 Virginia victory.

True freshman corner Bryce Hall recorded two interceptions and made multiple other key plays on the ball, as the Cavs picked off Duke quarterback Daniel Jones five times. Sophomore Juan Thornhill, who also gained an increased role with the rash of injuries in the secondary, also hauled in two interceptions as the Cavaliers’ young defense continued its weekly improvement.

Virginia is just 2-3 and faces an uphill climb to even think about a bowl game, but this is certainly a much better team than the one that was pushed all over the field by FCS-based Richmond in Week 1.

“Richmond doesn’t even feel like this year,” Mendenhall told reporters after the game.

It has a heck of a lot to do with the young players on defense. The underclassmen at cornerback came up huge under a large amount of pressure, but they weren’t alone.

After Duke gained momentum in the fourth quarter and cut a two-possession UVA lead to a touchdown, the Blue Devils had the ball with a chance to tie. That was when true freshman linebacker Jordan Mack rushed into the Duke backfield and pummeled Jones in the end zone, knocking the ball loose for redshirt freshman Eli Hanback to recover for a touchdown to seal the victory.

Mack finished with eight tackles including a sack. Thornhill and Hall had four tackles each.

The Cavs’ veterans were certainly a big part of the victory. Junior Micah Kizer had 18 tackles, including a fourth-down sack, and broke up a pass. Junior safety Quin Blanding had seven tackles and an interception. It’s beginning to become possible to imagine Virginia fielding a dominant defense next season, even if Kizer and Blanding are off to the NFL next year.

Mendenhall worked to make it easier on his youngsters by simplifying the UVA scheme after realizing he threw too much at his new team in the early weeks of the season. In Durham, the Cavaliers used their natural athleticism and instincts to make plays, and Hall’s first interception was a perfect example.

At 6-3 and 200 pounds, Hall is already one of the biggest and most physical corners in the ACC. He was coming on a blitz when he recognized the pass play into the flat, stopped dead in his tracks, and leaped to snag the ball out of the air.

Hall didn’t even start Saturday, but it became clear early on his physical gifts were going to cause problems for the Blue Devils. The rest of the ACC will likely see a lot of him over the next few years.

Virginia has next week off before getting Pitt, North Carolina and Louisville at home. If the Cavaliers can continue to improve at this rate, none of those teams will be able to take the Cavs lightly and get away with it.

Quarterback Kurt Benkert is getting more comfortable with his new teammates every time out. Over the past two games he’s thrown for more than 750 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception. When the defense can get takeaways as it did at Duke, there’s a good chance Benkert and the offense will be able to take advantage.

Suddenly a season that once looked like a throwaway could be a building block as Mendenhall sets the foundation for renewed success in Charlottesville.

Duking it out: Young defenders step up for Virginia
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