Kurt Benkert threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in a miserable first quarter for him. The Cavaliers' offense couldn't get going against an aggressive defensive front for the Blue Devils. And Duke went ahead late in the second quarter, 14-7.
But unlike recent Virginia teams, the Cavaliers bounced back and won 28-21 on Saturday. Benkert threw three touchdown passes as they reeled of 21 straight points, the defense held Duke to 255 yards and made a stand in the closing minutes to finish off their third consecutive victory Saturday.
"Our offense made timely plays, we made timely stops," senior linebacker Micah Kiser said. "That's why we won it."
Sophomore wide receiver Joe Reed, whose first season ended with a 2-10 record, was a bit more excited.
"We feel like we have the whole season in front of us," he said. "We feel like nobody can beat us, just positivity all around."
Benkert settled down after Jeremy McDuffie intercepted him and returned it 42 yards. A big part of why was that Virginia, whose offensive line was not giving the quarterback time against an aggressive and effective pass rush, went to a short passing game.
"I think it helps a lot when we get the ball out quick because it tires those guys down," he said of the defense.
The Cavaliers (4-1, 1-0) also continued their best start since the 2007 team started 7-1.
Duke's Daniel Jones, meanwhile, had his second consecutive brutal effort against the Cavaliers for Duke (4-2, 0-2). The quarterback, who threw five interceptions and fumbled once in a 34-20 loss last year, completed 14 of 42 passes for 124 yards and two more interceptions.
"I think it comes down to us, and us being able to execute," Jones, who also rushed for 36 yards on nine tries, said. "It shouldn't be about the (opposing) defense, and that is not to say that I don't give them credit, but we have got to do a better job of executing."
Quin Blanding returned Jones' first interception, off a deflection, 58 yards for a touchdown, the first of his career. It gave Virginia a 7-0 lead after just 4:52, but McDuffie's pick-6 11 minutes later drew Duke even in a first quarter in which the teams combined for 37 yards.
"The story was pretty simple," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "We have issues in the passing game. It has somewhat disappeared. When we are open, we are missing them. When we hit them, there are some dropped. It's just malfunctioning."
Benkert finished 24 of 43 for 182 yards. He hit Olamide Zaccheaus for an 11-yard score 45 seconds before halftime to make it 14-14, and gave the Cavaliers a 28-14 lead with touchdown passes of 5 and 17 yards to Doni Dowling, the latter with 7:08 remaining.
The Blue Devils drove into Virginia territory on their final possession with Jones completing four consecutive passes, but sacks by Chris Peace early in the drive and freshman linebacker Chris Snowden - on only his second play in the game - slowed the drive, and two incompletions turned the ball back to Virginia.
Duke: The Blue Devils' defensive front gave Virginia's line fits all day, and the defensive backs generally ran right with the Cavaliers on deep passes. The line seemed to wear down as Virginia went with a short passing game. The Blue Devils started the day sharing the ACC lead in sacks, but managed just one on the day.
Virginia: With a running game that hasn't yet proven reliable, Benkert's accuracy becomes critical. He was way off early in the game, throwing two interceptions and fumbling once as both teams struggled, but once the short passing game started working, his confidence seemed to return and he carried the day.
Doni Dowling made a tearful apology to the team after drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for somersaulting into the end zone on Virginia's final touchdown, giving them a 28-14 lead, but said the tears had nothing to do with sadness.
"I was just so proud. There's a lot, man, just a lot of different emotions. Some I can't even put into words," he said. "I was just really proud. All the stuff we've been thought. Last year. My time here. Injuries. Different stuff like that."
Dowling described the act as "selfish," but said of the victory: "I hope that's a message to the ACC that we're here."
Duke returns home and plays Florida State.
Virginia goes on the road for just the second time and plays at North Carolina.
More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.