After winning back to back ACC road games, the Hoos now return home to face Duke. The Hoos are 6-3, 3-2 and bowl eligible. Duke is 3-6, 1-4. Duke has been one of the poorest teams in college for the better part of 2 decades. They last played in a bowl game in 1995 and last won a bowl in 1960. Yes, over 50 years without a bowl win.
Still, this is a big game for the Hoos. Why? Because there isn't a single player on the UVA roster who has played in a win over Duke. That's right, not a single player on our current roster has ever beaten the worst ACC team there is. Only 11 players were even in school when we last beat Duke, in 2007. That makes this game must win.
Furthermore, this is likely to be the last game we are favored in, and a win ensures a winning season. All the momentum we have gained the past 2 weeks is gone if we lose this game. If we end the season on a 3 game losing streak, even if we end up a bowl game, this season will feel like a disappointment.
So, will the Hoos stay hot and win their 3rd consecutive game? Or will the losing streak to Duke continue? Let's find out.
Virginia on Offense
The Virginia offense that we saw last week, with 527 total yards, would've been a huge shock as recently as a year ago. However, this year, it has basically become the norm. Our offense is ranked 39th in the country, averaging over 425 yards per game. Our rush offense is 24th in the country and our pass offense is 53rd in the country. That is very successful, very balanced offense. I simply can't put into words how much credit Bill Lazor deserves for this. Even our most successful teams of the past decade weren't this good offensively.
Duke's defense, on the other hand, isn't good. They rank 85th in total defense. They rank 67th in rush defense and 94th in pass defense. Obviously, this combination bodes well for us. Considering how well Michael Rocco has played in the past two games, Duke may have to gameplan to stop the pass. If they do that, surely we'll have success running the ball. (Stats are courtesy ncaa.org.)
Duke's base defense is a 4-2-5 alignment, which most of us call a nickel package. Nickel package is generally used to stop teams from passing. So, why is Duke so bad in pass defense? For one, they simply aren't that good. And two, because of the personnel alignment, they almost have to focus on the ground game or they'll get gashed.
The 4 down linemen include 1 senior, DT Charlie Hatcher. Hatcher is in his 3rd year starting, and is a solid contributor in the middle. The other tackle is sophomore Sydney Sarmiento, who isn't near as good. Hatcher can make plays on his own, and will make it difficult for the Hoos to run the ball up the middle. Samiento is just a big body in the middle to eat up space. Our talented guards won't have any trouble with him. At DE, the Blue Devils have a few solid contributors. The starters will sophomore Justin Foxx and freshman Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo. Both are on the smaller side, but quick. We have seen our OL struggle with quickness off the edges, so this is something to watch. We will also see junior Kenny Anunike, who actually leads the team in sacks despite not starting. That says a lot about the Duke defense. There are several other freshmen DLs that Duke is excited about, but none of them are game-ready at this point. The Duke DL might be good in a couple of years, but right now, they simply aren't.
One of the main reasons that Duke switched to a 4-2-5 alignment during the season last year was that they didn't have enough LBs who were any good. That remains true today, although the 2 LBs that they have are pretty good. Sophomore Kelby Brown was 3rd in the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year voting last year, and is 2nd on the team in tackles and first in TFLs. The other LB is junior Austin Gamble, who is 5th in tackles and tied for 2nd in sacks. Brown is more of a sideline to sideline MLB, who will chase down perimeter running plays. Gamble is more of an OLB who is good at rushing the passer and setting the edge. Neither is particularly big, which should bode well for the types of traps and edge rushes we like to run. Gamble on the blitz is something to watch out for.
The other reason the Duke runs the 4-2-5 is that they have a bunch of talented DBs. Again, this makes you wonder why this team is so bad against pass defense. They have 3 safeties, including senior Matt Daniels, who has been starting for most of his career. Daniels leads the team in tackles by a wide margin and is among the nations' leaders. He also leads Duke in interceptions and passes defended. Daniels is the guy who Rocco will be reading on most plays, because where Daniels lines up will determine a lot of what Duke is doing defensively. Daniels often lines up near the line of scrimmage, almost as a 3rd LB, especially on 1st and 2nd down. He isn't really a true cover guy, so look for Rocco to target him any time he is lined up opposite Perry Jones or any of our TEs.
The other two safeties are both juniors, Walt Canty and Jordan Byas. Canty is 3rd on the team in tackles and has 2 forced fumbles. Byas is only playing because of an injury to senior Lee Butler. Butler was a good cover guy, and would often line up opposite the slot receiver. Byas does not have the same skillset, and is probably too close to Daniels in terms of style. Daniels, of course, is better.
Duke's CBs are solid. Sophomore Ross Cockrell started every game as a freshman, and led the team with 3 interceptions. Tony Foster starts opposite him, and is maybe the fastest player on the Duke roster. Both CBs are over 6'0" tall, so they may provide a tough matchup for our smaller WRs.
As I mentioned, statistically, Duke is a better against the run than the pass, even though their defensive is designed to stop the pass. Part of the reason is because of their solid secondary, they play very aggressively with their front 7, selling out to get at the QB. This forces their DBs to give up yards rather than get beat deep. Our offense is based on a strong running game. Duke knows this, and will line Matt Daniels up near the line of scrimmage in an attempt to shut down the running game. I see play action being a huge part of our game plan, but I also think we can have success running the ball. The OL needs to focus on two players, Daniels and Brown. If those two players are contained, the offense is going to be successful.
Our offense is on a roll right now, and I fully expect that to continue. Last year, in Durham, we racked up 643 total yards and 48 points, but lost. We may not reach those lofty numbers this year, but then again, we might.
Virginia on Defense
Duke's passing offense is pretty good. They rank 27th in the nation. Duke's rushing offense is atrocious. They rank 107th in the nation. As a unit, they rank 77th, but they are 98th in scoring offense. The Hoos defense, on the other hand, is about even between rushing and passing. Against the run, the Hoos are 36th, against the pass they are 38th. In total, the Hoos rank 22nd in the nation in defense and 33rd in scoring defense. Once again, the numbers bode well for the Hoos.
The reason that Duke's passing offense is so good is junior QB Sean Renfree. After a breakout year last year in which he threw for over 3000 yards, Renfree has kept right on going this year. He's already near 2200 yards this year, and has cut down on the INTs from last year. For the second week in a row, we will likely see the starting QB removed at times for a running QB. In this case, it'll be freshman Anthony Boone, who is a very good runner, and solid as a passer. Renfree will get a majority of the snaps, but Boone will spell him, especially around the goalline. Last year, a different running QB, Brandon Connette had a big game against us, rushing for 78 yards and 2 TDs on just 12 carries. Renfree also had 2 rushing TDs, including a 37 yard scamper. Connette has struggled with injuries this year, allowing Boone to overtake him as the change-up QB.
Much like Virginia, Duke employs a 3 man rotation at RB. The starter will be junior Desmond Scott, who averages nearly 6 yards per carry. He has struggled with injuries this season, so sophomore Juwan Thompson actually leads the team in carries, yards and TDs. Scott ran for nearly 100 yards against us last year. The other running back who will see time in the backfield is senior Jay Hollingsworth. Thompson is the biggest of the 3, and will see most of the short yardage carries.
Duke employs "the Killer Vees" at WR. They start 3 WRs, and two of them have names beginning with V. Senior Donovan Varner and junior Conner Vernon have combined for nearly 100 catches and over 1000 yards on the season. Varner is the faster of the two while Vernon is a bigger guy. It makes them a deadly combination. Both have been all-ACC WRs in past years. The 3rd WR is sophomore Brandon Braxton, who is another big target similar to Vernon. The other WR we will see is sophomore Tyree Watkins, originally a Virginia commit who changed his mind and went to Duke.
The Blue Devils also have a very good TE, senior Cooper Helfet. Helfet torched us last year with 7 catches for 122 yards and a TD. Helfet has 31 catches on the season, good for 4th on the team, behind the top 3 WRs. At 6'4" and 240 pounds, Helfet can be a load for a DB to handle, but is too explosive for most LBs to handle. It will probably come to Rodney McLeod and LaRoy Reynolds to contain him. Helfet, along with the Duke WRs, is more adept at running underneath routes and short routes. Duke isn't going to throw a lot of deep passes, although they will go deep on occasion, mostly to Vernon and Braxton.
Duke's offensive line is good. Very good. One of the best in the ACC. They are 13th in the nation in fewest sacks allowed. There are 4 returning starters, including senior LT Kyle Hill who might end up being all-ACC this year. Cam Johnson will certainly have his hands full trying to rush the passer against Hill. On the other side, sophomore Perry Simmons started every game last year as a freshman, and has become another very good OT. Hill and Simmons provide tremendous bookends to protect Renfree.
The interior of the Duke line isn't quite as good as those two, but still pretty good. The center is junior Brian Moore, who played guard last year, and has missed some time this season with an arm injury. But he is back and healthy. At LG, sophomore David Harding starts after being a third team freshman all-American performer last year. The RG is redshirt freshman Laken Tomlinson. Tomlinson is the biggest of the linemen, at 6'3" and 315 pounds. The others are on the smaller side, maxing at about 300 pounds. This makes them a very mobile group and adept pass blockers, but is part of why the ground game struggles so much.
Duke has a very talented offense. They are prone to turnovers, and sometimes they get too in love with the pass, and forget about the run. The key for the Hoos is going to be avoiding big plays in the passing game and keeping contain on the Duke QBs. Last year, we got killed by Duke's QBs running with the ball. If that happens again, we will be in a dogfight. If we can keep Renfree, Boone (and maybe even Connette) in the pocket, and keep their WRs in front of us, we should be able to contain the Blue Devils.
This game seems to line up pretty well for us. Our CBs are good cover guys, so they should be able to contain Duke's talented WRs reasonably well. Our DL has been playing tremendous football, so that should help neutralize Duke's strong OL. And Duke's defense is pretty bad, apart from Matt Daniels and Kelby Brown.
If we are successful running the football, and I think we will be, then we can keep Renfree and the talented Duke offense off the field. If we get a lead, and force Duke into a situation where they have to throw, we can be opportunistic and force TOs, just like we did last week.
We are favored in this game by about 10 points, and we are at home. And I am certain that our seniors do not want to graduate without having beaten Duke. I think we come out hot and win going away.
Prediction: Hoos 42, Blue Devils 21