Despite the loss, there were encouraging signs from the Hoos this past week. The offense churned out over 600 yards and 5 TDs. The defense held a very good offense to just 385 yards. Some of the younger guys on defense have really begun to step up and make their presence known. Phillip Sims led 2 TD drives and a third drive that should've led to points.
Obviously, there were disappointments as well. Notably the turnovers and penalties. Missed tackles and missed blocks are also troubling. Still, we can take some positives from this game, and move forward.
The opponent this week is perennial ACC also-ran Duke. Duke, however, is 4-1 this season including a win last week on the road against Wake Forest. Granted, the other three wins came against a I-AA NC Central along with Memphis and Florida International who are a combined 1-8 this season. Still, a road conference win is a big deal for Duke.
The Hoos, of course, are 2-3 and have lost 3 in a row. The fanbase is up in arms and the season is spiraling away. If the Hoos are going to turn things around, now would be a good time. A win here and the season is back on track. A loss, and the entire season could go down the tubes. At the very least, if the Hoos want to play in a bowl game, they probably need a win this week.
Virginia on Offense
Last year the Hoos triumphed 31-21 in Charlottesville behind 2 TDs passes from QB Michael Rocco. This year, all signs point to Phillip Sims being the starting QB over the struggling Rocco. A leg injury that Sims suffered against Louisiana Tech is the only thing that may keep him from starting. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if Rocco gets into the game at some point, depending on the game situation.
Duke's defense last year was not good. They ranked 92nd in total defense and 90th in scoring defense. They were bad across the board too, ranking 85th in rushing defense and 84th in passing defense. That defense was pretty young, and returned this year almost in its entirety. They can't help but to improve. This year, through 5 games, they are 42nd in total defense, 34th in rushing defense and 72nd in passing defense. They are 67th in scoring defense. Granted, they haven't played the most daunting of schedules, but those numbers are obviously vastly different. (All ranks courtesy ncaa.org.)
This is the third weekend in a row that we face a team running some version of a 4-2-5 defense. Maybe this is an omen of some sort? Anyway, Duke does this a bit more out of necessity than out of scheme. They have had trouble over the past few years in finding quality LBs, while they seem to have a plethora of DBs. The 4-2-5, therefore, allows them to get their best 11 defenders on the field.
The Duke defense was aided by the return of senior DE Kenny Anunike. Anunike missed the final 8 games of the season last year, and still led the team with 4 sacks. He was granted a medical hardship waiver and allowed to return for a 6th season, where he hasn't missed a beat. Anunike leads the team with 3.5 sacks and is 2nd with 4 TFLs. Anunike lines up on the right side of the defense, so Oday Aboushi will have his hands full. The only player with more TFLs than Anunike is his DE partner, Dezmond Johnson. The sophomore has 4.5 TFLs and 2 sacks. Duke will rotate a number of players in at DE, including sophomores Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Jonathan Woodruff and junior Justin Foxx. Those 3 players have combined for 4.5 sacks this season.
In the middle, the Blue Devils aren't nearly as deep or experienced. The two starters are junior Sydney Sarmiento (‘64" 300) and sophomore Jamal Wallace (6'4" 275). Both are converted DEs and rely on their quickness to pressure the QB. Wake Forest rushed for over 160 yards last week, although Wake's rushing game bears little resemblance to ours. They do have a bigger body in the middle in 6'2" 315 lb sophomore Steven Ingram, and he'll get a lot of run on rushing downs. The other backup is sophomore converted TE Nick Sink, who is also more of a quickness guy.
At LB, Duke misses junior Kelby Brown, third in tackles a year ago. Starting in his stead is sophomore David Helton. Junior Austin Gamble (no relation to Virginia WR Adrian Gamble) starts next to Helton. Duke's depth chart lists Gamble as the MLB and Helton as the WLB, but really the two play a pretty similar position in their nickel defense. Gamble is 4th on the team in tackles (and tops among LBs) after being 5th in tackles a year ago (and behind only Brown among LBs). Freshman Kyler Brown ( younger brother) and sophomore C.J. France are the backups, although all 4 will play as Duke rotates the LBs a fair amount. France has started twice this year, due to injuries to Helton.
The real strength of this defense is the secondary, and specifically the safeties. Senior Walt Canty leads the team in tackles this year, after finishing 2nd a year ago. Junior Brandon Braxton is 3rd in tackles and senior Jordan Byas is 6th. Those are the three starting safeties and they are all 6'1" and 210-220 pounds. Braxton just moved over from WR, where he caught 40 passes a year ago. This is a very big, very good trio of safeties. Behind those 3 is true freshman Dwayne Norman, who basically backs up all 3. Norman is a good cover guy, but isn't the all around safety that the others are.
The CBs are senior Lee Butler and junior Ross Cockrell. Cockrell is 2nd on the team in tackles and first with 3 interceptions and 11 passes defended. He is truly one of the top CBs in the ACC. Butler has moved between CB and S and has had problems staying on the field but he is a good cover guy. The third CB for the Blue Devils is Tony Foster, but he will mostly only play as a necessity.
In some ways, this isn't the best week to be going with a new starting QB. Duke's secondary is seriously good and Sims has certainly thrown his share of wayward passes. However, in a lot of ways, this is the perfect week to be breaking Sims in. Duke's defense thrives against the pass and suffers against the run. If we can get Perry Jones and Kevin Parks going (and maybe even Clifton Richardson, who appears to be healthy), things will be much easier for Sims.
Duke likes to bring pressure from all over the field, as 10 players already have at least 1/2 a sack. Anunike is Duke's most consistent pass rusher, so if Aboushi can neutralize him, that will really help Sims have time to scan the field. Last year, Duke used Kelby Brown as a blitzer a fair amount, but without his presence at LB, they have turned to their safeties more for that role. Regardless, our RBs will have to be prepared to pass block.
Virginia on Defense
The Blue Devils have Sean Renfree at QB for the 10th consecutive season. OK, so it only seems like its been that long for the redshirt senior. Renfree has been moving up the ACC all-time leaderboards, passing Matt Schaub last week against Wake in passing yards and completions. Renfree is a traditional drop-back passer with enough mobility to run when needed. He isn't, however, going to make a lot of plays with his feet.
The offense that Renfree runs is basically a spread attack, although they do use some pro-style concepts. Renfree will often be lined up in the shotgun, with a single back alongside him. They throw the ball a lot more than they run it, nearly 50% more in fact. The passing offense is ranked 25th in the nation, while the rushing attack ranks just 107th. They are scoring 37 ppg, which ranks 31st nationally. Their total offense ranks 53rd nationally (just behind the Hoos, who rank 50th). Renfree has been fantastic this year, completing 72% of his passes for about 7.6 yards per attempt, a very good average. (All ranks are courtesy ncaa.org.) I should note that Renfree suffered an injury against Wake Forest, and missed some time. His status is still uncertain for this week, although I fully expect him to play.
Duke's starter at RB is junior Juwan Thompson, who rushed for 2 TDs against us last year. Despite averaging just 3.5 ypc, Thompson leads the team in carries. However, sophomore Josh Snead and true freshman Jela Duncan both have nearly as many carries. Duncan actually leads the team in yards, with 209, and averages nearly 7 yards per carry. Duncan is a big play guy who had offers from some top programs. Thompson is the power back, and will look to take most of his carries between the tackles. The other two are smaller, quicker types, who will often run on sweeps and other edge rushing plays.
Like most spread offenses, Duke will line up with 3-wide on just about every play. What Duke does differently is use a variety of players on those wide positions. Sometimes it will be a TE split out. Sometimes a RB. Sometimes, they'll use one of their two athletic young QBs split out. Sophomores Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone have both been split out on plays this year. The two have combined for 31 carries and 43 passes this year, although most of that has come at QB. One of the two QBs will enter the game on a lot of short yardage plays, and in the red zone. Their ability to run with the football gives the offense an extra threat in those situations. Connette has 5 TDs already this season. Boone has just 1, but has thrown 5 times as many passes. Connette also has 7 receptions and a TD on the season.
The actual WRs that Duke plays are led by senior Conner Vernon. Vernon has been there just as long as Renfree, and last week tied the ACC record for career receptions. He is also on pace to break the record for receiving yards. Vernon is also among the nations' leaders in receiving this season. Along with Vernon, the starters are senior Desmond Scott, a former RB, and sophomore Jamison Crowder. All three are among the top 25 pass catchers in the country thus far. Scott, in particular, has impressed after moving from RB during training camp. Sophomore Issac Blackeney and junior Corey Gattis will also see time at WR. Another WR to keep your eye on is true freshman Max McCaffrey, son of former NFL WR Ed McCaffrey.
As I said, Duke will often use their TEs split out in the formation. The Blue Devils have a number of talented TEs, but they are all young. The starter is redshirt freshman David Reeves, and his primary backup is true freshman Erick Schneider. Blackeney is also listed as a TE, but he is on the depth chart as a WR. Reeves has 5 catches and a TD on the season. Schneider has 1 catch.
Long a huge weakness for the Blue Devils, their OL has actually become a strength. They returned 7 players who started at least once last year. The leader of the group is 6'4" 285 lb junior Dave Harding at LG. Harding can play all over the line, and actually played center last year while Brian Moore was hurt. Moore, a 6'2" 285 lb senior, is healthy and back at center. The RG is 6'3" 320 sophomore Laken Tomlinson, who started every game as a freshman and was a first team freshman All-American. The two tackles are 6'4" 305 lb sophomore Takoby Cofield on the left and 6'5" 300 lb junior Perry Simmons on the right. Simmons, in particular, is solid and has started every game for 3 years.
One thing that has really helped the Duke offense is their good health. The same 11 players have started all 4 games this season, and they are slated to start this week as well. Compare that with the Hoos defense, which has missed starters Billy Schautz and LaRoy Reynolds at times this year. (Both should be healthy and playing this week.)
This Duke offense is actually pretty similar to what we saw last week against Louisiana Tech. They don't play at the same tempo that the Bulldogs did, but they will use many of the same looks. They run a lot of WR screens as well as RB screens. The TEs will run a lot of drag routes, with RBs coming behind them into the flats. The WRs will look to dink and dunk for a while and then beat you deep. Vernon, in particular, has very good ball skills and will look to go deep if he has a mismatch.
Demetrious Nicholson will find himself matched up on Vernon on most plays, and will be forced into single coverage there at times. The rest of the secondary will often play a softer zone, looking to keep plays in front of them. This is another week where I do think Jim Reid should spend much time on complicated blitzes. Renfree is too good to be rattled by some pressure, and we'll just be asking to give up a big play. The defense will have to do a better job of tackling, especially the safeties. Renfree has thrown 5 INTs this year, so he will make mistakes, and the Hoos will need to capitalize on those.
This isn't the same Duke team that we've seen for most of the past 20 years. They can play. Despite the poor quality of competition, their 4-1 record is no mirage. Even their one loss, a blowout against Stanford, was closer than it looked. Stanford scored early on a punt return and later on an INT return, but Duke actually outgained the Cardinal.
Our young secondary is going to be severely tested by a very good QB for the third week in a row. They've really held their own the past two weeks, so I'm confident they can maintain that level of play. Duke offense isn't as good as LTs, but it is still very good. They will move the ball, but we need to avoid giving up big plays and we need to keep them out of the endzone.
Duke's special teams aren't great, so this may be a week for us to make some improvements there. A big play from KR Khalek Shepherd could swing the outcome of the game, as could a botched punt return.
The keys to this game are going to be our ability to find a running game and turnovers. If we can run the ball and keep the pressure off of Phillip Sims, we should be able to put some points on the board. As we've seen this year, turnovers can totally swing a game.
The Blue Devils are favored by 1.5 in this game. When you consider the roughly 3 point home field advantage, that basically means the oddsmakers have no idea what is going to happen. Well, I'm in that same boat. If the Hoos accumulated 600 yards of offense again, they'll probably come out on top. But, if they turn it over 3 or 4 times again, they probably won't. The Hoos are more talented that the Blue Devils, so they are capable of winning this game. They are also capable of losing. I'm chosing to be optimistic.
Prediction: Hoos 31, Blue Devils 28