'You just look at it and you're like, Oh no, this is not happening'
There were a lot of big plays Saturday during Virginia's 55-48 loss at Duke -- 33 by Coach Mike London's count. But none were as crucial or momentum-swinging as the fourth and 20 play that the Blue Devils converted, trailing by one, with just more than a minute to play.
London said Sunday that the Cavaliers had their nickel package (five defensive backs) on the field in two-man underneath coverage. Due to an ankle injury to junior cornerback Chase Minnifield that forced Minnifield to leave the game late in the first quarter, strong safety Rodney McLeod was forced into duty as the extra cover corner in such situations. He lined up across from Duke slot receiver Donovan Varner, who -- just like the three other Blue Devils wideouts on that play -- ran a vertical route straight up the field.
McLeod ran hip-to-hip with Varner with help from a safety covering a deeper section of the field.
"If (Duke quarterback Sean Renfree) underthrows it, the underneath man has a chance to bat it down," London said. "If he overthrows it, the safety over the top has a chance to break on the ball. He threw it perfectly, and they caught it and converted. They executed, and we didn't."
Renfree's pass to Varner was good for a 32-yard gain. Duke gained 12 more yards on a pass completion to tight end Cooper Helfet on the next play. That was followed by an incompletion that set up second and 10 from the Virginia 35-yard-line.
For most of the game, the Duke offense had hurried up to the line of scrimmage, taken a look at what formation the Virginia defense was lined up in and then resettled to call a play accordingly. This time, the Blue Devils rushed up to the line and got off a play immediately, catching the Cavaliers in mid-substitution.
Virginia was several players short as Duke tailback Desmond Scott took the ball and ran to the left -- away from the Cavaliers' sideline. He sprinted 35 yards and the dove across the pylon for the game-winning touchdown.
And to think, that score -- that loss -- could have been avoided had Duke not converted on that fourth and 20 play.
"There's been times we've played the same coverage and get picks and passes knocked down and things like that," said London, referring to the defensive call on Varner's 32-yard reception. "This time, you just look at it and you're like, ‘Oh no, this is not happening.' And then they convert the thing. Because it's fourth down. The game's over. Game's over. Knock it down, overthrow, errant throw, a sack or something like that. That was a tough one, a tough one, for sure."
| November 8, 2010; 7:23 AM ET
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