DURHAM, N.C. (AP) -- Conner Vernon caught two touchdown passes and set the Atlantic Coast Conference record for career receptions and Anthony Boone threw four TD passes in his first start, helping Duke crush Virginia 42-17 on Saturday. With his seven catches for 93 yards on the afternoon, Vernon now has 239 receptions in his career. Vernon surpassed Clemson's Aaron Kelly as the ACC's all-time leader in career receptions when he made a catch for minus-2 yards in the first quarter. The senior also hauled in a 37-yard touchdown on the Blue Devils' second drive, and his 45-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter put Duke up 18 points. Duke starting quarterback Sean Renfree missed the game with an injured right elbow, and Boone threw for 212 yards without an interception in relief. The victory gave Duke (5-1, 2-0) its best start to the season since the 1994 team won its first seven games. After gaining 321 yards of total offense in the first half, Virginia (2-4, 0-2) could only muster five first downs after halftime. The key stretch of the game came early in the third quarter. The Cavaliers had a 17-14 halftime lead on the strength of a first half where they averaged 7.1 yards per rush and totaled 184 yards on the ground. After going without any yards on its first drive of the second half, Virginia had to punt from its own 5-yard line. Vernon returned the punt all the way to the Cavaliers' 22, and a holding penalty that was added on to the punt return gave Duke the ball at Virginia's 12. Boone then lofted a swing pass to a wide-open Juwan Thompson for a touchdown on the Blue Devils' first play of the drive, giving Duke a 21-17 advantage. The Blue Devils defense then stopped Kevin Parks on a fourth-and-1 from Virginia's 47-yard line on the Cavaliers' ensuing possession. Duke took advantage of its optimal field position, gaining the 45 yards in four plays. Jela Duncan finished the drive with a powerful 11-yard touchdown run to go up by 11 points. Virginia's offense continued to sputter the rest of the quarter. After its powerful first half, the Cavaliers only had 14 yards rushing in the third quarter. The only scoring of the fourth quarter came when Vernon caught a 45-yard high-arcing pass from Boone and when Thompson had a 34-yard touchdown rush for the final margin.
If you were hoping for some clarity from Bronco Mendenhall at the ACC Kickoff on Virginia's quarterback race, he provided none.
Matt Johns returns for his senior season, but he is competing with transfers Connor Brewer and Kurt Benkert to remain atop the depth chart in 2016. Mendenhall is certainly in no hurry to name a starter.
"We currently have three quarterbacks in contention that we will carry through fall camp before we make a decision," Mendenhall said.
Despite starting for the past two seasons, Johns did not do enough to entrench himself as the starter. Johns threw for 2,810 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015, but he also threw 17 interceptions. Mendenhall praised his poise and experience, but his play has left an opening for Brewer and Benkert.
Brewer served as Johns' backup last season after transferring from Arizona. He appeared in only two games for the Cavaliers, completing 4-of-8 passes for 34 yards and an interception. His progress in the offseason, however, has pleased the coaches and has thrust him into the midst of the quarterback competition.
"Connor Brewer had a very good spring, much more efficient and effective than any of us expected," Mendenhall said. "He was just grateful for a chance. But he made the most of it."
The newest quarterback of the three to Charlottesville, Benkert may also be the most intriguing. He transferred to Virginia from East Carolina in the spring after missing the entire 2015 season with a knee injury. ECU head coach Ruffin McNeil, now the defensive line coach at UVa, named Benkert the starter before he suffered the injury.
Unlike the other two quarterbacks, Benkert also has two years of eligibility remaining which is a very appealing prospect to the head coach.
"We're very intrigued by what we've seen from [Benkert] with the upside that he has two years of eligibility,' Mendenhall said. "There is a nice bridge there that could be formed with the possibility of more experience."
As Mendenhall begins rebuilding the Virginia program, having too many options at the quarterback position is potentially a positive development for the Cavaliers. UVa may need help in a lot of areas, but if they come into the season feeling confident under center it will make the transition to a new coach that much easier.
Because of the importance of the position, however, it's a decision Mendenhall has to get right and he intends to take his time before he makes it.
"I won't know until fall camp is over," Mendenhall said. "We'll have to do a masterful job of orchestrating fall camp to distribute the repetitions enough to be clear enough as to who is the uncontested leader."
Taking over for a legend is never easy, but that's the position Justin Fuente now finds himself at Virginia Tech.
Frank Beamer built the football program at Virginia Tech into a national power during his 29 seasons in Blacksburg. Fuente now takes over looking to preserve the Hokies' 23-year bowl streak and return to the team to the heights reached during Beamer's peak.
“I feel pressure to do a good job because Virginia Tech football means a lot to a tremendous amount of people," Beamer said. "It’s important."
With that comes a lot of expectations. Fuente wouldn't have it any other way.
"It’s great to coach at a place with expectations," Fuente said at the ACC Football Kickoff. "There is a lot that comes with that and I understand that. That’s just the way it is. But it’s fun to coach at a place that means so much to so many people."
Fuente's task is made more difficult as Virginia Tech finds itself at a crossroad of sorts. After eight straight seasons of 10 or more wins, the Hokies have not won more than eight since 2011. Rather than competing for ACC Championships, Virginia Tech has had to battle just to reach bowl eligibility.
For Fuente, he recognizes that fans do not just expect him to extend the bowl streak. His job is to return the Hokies to national prominence
"We’re taking over a program that is not where we want it to be," Fuente said. "When I say ‘we,’ I mean Hokie Nation. We want it to be back to where it was ... but we will get it there. I know that for a fact.”
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Going from BYU to a power conference like the ACC is quite the jump for Bronco Mendenhall, but so far the new Virginia head football coach has seemed right at home.
Mendenhall has been tasked with changing the culture at a Virginia program that has been to a bowl game only once since 2008. The difficulty of that task became apparent to Mendenhall immediately as he met the team.
"The team that was in front of me when I arrived at UVA, their eyes would not make contact," Mendenhall said at the ACC Football Kickoff. "Their heads were down. They looked right on the verge and acted right on the verge of despair. I remember changing what my message was to them, what I had prepared, when I saw that, working to inspire at that point."
To do that, he is emphasizing will and determination rather than just football. At practice, players do not get numbers because they have not yet earned that right. Mendenhall wants the team to build its confidence through hard work before worrying about X's and O's.
"We are a football program that bases will before skill," Mendenahll said. "We work from the inside out. Eventually we'll play good football. But we work on toughness and effort. We've made significant inroads in that regard. We think the football will catch up and catch up relatively quickly."
After watching their team finish with a losing record in seven of the last eight seasons, you can forgive Virginia fans for wondering just how quickly the football will catch up. Mendenhall's answer: pretty darn quickly.
Despite the talk of building up confidence and having to change the culture at Virginia, Mendenhall's ultimate message was clear. His expectations for the team remain high and the turnaround in Charlottesville will be swift.
"I would say at the University of Virginia, we're ahead of schedule in terms of the culture, with the execution to follow," Mendenhall said. "We'll be working hard this fall camp to make sure, for the players that earn the right to come into fall camp with their conditioning, that they're ready and fit. But we have some football work to do."
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