CHARLOTTESVILLE — The crowd in Scott Stadium left early.
This time, it wasn’t in disgust or despair over what they had seen from the Virginia Cavaliers.
This time, it was because the outcome of the game long had been a foregone conclusion. The Cavaliers provided a satisfying and entertaining day, not to mention an outcome Virginia fans are beginning to expect.
Virginia 48, Duke 14.
That score says a lot, but it doesn’t come close to saying it all.
Virginia’s offense was fine. It moved the ball long distances when necessary. It took advantage of the multiple short fields provided by its defense.
Virginia’s defense was outstanding, overwhelming, well-prepared and almost perfect in its execution of the game plan.
And that game plan was? Please keep it simple. We have a deadline.
“Force turnovers,” Virginia outside linebacker Noah Taylor said.
Cavalier defenders forced two fumbles, recovered both and fell on a fumble by the Blue Devils that came with no contact, other than the quarterback and running back mildly colliding — kudos to 300-pound defensive tackle Eli Hanback for having the foresight to fall on the ball instead of attempting to pick it up and ill-advisedly try to advance it.
“For a brief moment, in my head, I was, ‘Do I pick this up and run?’, but it was spinning kind of weird so I thought, ‘I’m just going to be safe and dive on it,’ ” Hanback said. “People were joking with me and saying why didn’t you pick it up and score?
“But last year I tried to do that and fumbled on the 1-yard line. Ohio got it.”
Virginia’s defenders intercepted two passes. Sometimes, Virginia’s defenders didn’t even need to force a turnover or fall on a gift of a turnover, to put the offense in scoring position.
Halfway through the second quarter, Taylor sliced into the backfield to grab Duke quarterback Quentin Harris from behind on what seemed a certain fourth-and-less-than-1 conversion at the Duke 34.
Instead, it became Virginia ball at the 34, and six minutes later became a 17-0 Virginia lead.
“I was just being a football player on that one,” Taylor said.
A football player following his read or assignment?
“Actually, I didn’t follow my assignment,” Taylor said, smiling.
When it works, you smile. When it doesn’t work, you prepare your apologies for your position coach and teammates.
After the first quarter Saturday, everything worked swimmingly well for the Cavaliers.
In the previous 70 football games between Duke and Virginia, seldom has there been one where the outcome became a foregone conclusion quite as early and quite as definitively as this — the 71st encounter.
Virginia will want to savor Saturday’s outcome.
Duke’s players will try to file this way in the deep recesses of their brains until next year when Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe will instruct them to summon the memory into the light.
“I think Coach Cutcliffe is an excellent coach but even more important, an amazing person,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Having said that, I didn’t anticipate the game going as it did because their team rarely turns the ball over, rarely does pressure affect them the way that it did and, uncharacteristically, the number of turnovers and field position and just the way the game went in general wasn’t how Duke had played football to this point.
“Five turnovers certainly mattered. Fourth-down stops are also taking possessions. … Simply the field position and number of opportunities we had were too great for our opponent to overcome. I don’t think it was luck. I don’t think it was random.”
Just what this game means in the big picture of the ACC Coastal Division now becomes the issue.
Here are some possibilities.
Offense wins games. Defense wins championships. Virginia’s defense gives the Cavaliers a chance to win the championship in a very, very fluid division.
Or, Saturday’s outcome could be just another head-scratching result in a division where inconsistency is mischaracterized as excellence or parity.
Duke beat Virginia Tech by 35. Virginia beat Duke by 34. Virginia Tech won at Miami. Virginia lost at Miami. Virginia had a blowout victory Saturday. In Blacksburg, Virginia Tech beat North Carolina 43-41 in six overtimes.
“The Coastal is an amazing and crazy division,” Mendenhall said. “And that was just manifest again today.”
The Cavaliers need to determine if Saturday’s performance is a sign of Virginia’s Manifest Destiny for this season and, as Mendenhall might say, more importantly, for this program.