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Virginia vs. Duke Big Preview: Can The Hoos Make It Two In A Row?

With both defenses plagued by injuries, we look for a high-scoring affair in Durham.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off its first win of the season, the Virginia Cavaliers head to Durham this weekend to take on the Duke Blue Devils. The tables in this series have turned as of late, and it will be up to Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall to turn them back. Following a stretch in which the Hoos won 17 out of 19 games against Duke, the Hoos then lost 6 of the 7, before winning last year. Many of those matchups have been high-scoring affairs, including last year’s 42-34 game.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe is known as a QB guru who coached Peyton Manning at Tennessee along and Eli at Ole Miss. He’s turned around the Duke football program, winning 27 games the past 3 years. He turned Sean Renfree and Thaddeus Lewis into NFL QBs. Funny thing is, his most successful teams have come over the past few years with “dual-threat” QBs Anthony Boone and Thomas Sirk, which would seem to be far away from his comfort zone. Here is a chart showing his career at Duke:

Over the past 3 years, while winning game after game, Cutcliffe’s teams have been mediocre in passing, but great at running the football. Last year, Sirk led the team in both rushes and yards, despite missing a game with injury. This year, the team is back to a passing team, and struggling to produce consistently.

Sirk, of course, is out for the season and won’t suit up on Saturday. He first missed spring practice with a knee injury, but was expected to be ready for the season. Then, he aggravated the injury during training camp and required a second knee surgery. When that happened, Duke’s 2016 hopes were largely written off. After losing their first 2 FBS games to Wake Forest and Northwestern (not exactly top competition), it seemed like a lost season for the Blue Devils. Then, they went to South Bend and knocked off the Fighting Irish.

Redshirt freshman Daniel Jones is Duke’s starting quarterback. He won the job in camp over junior Parker Boehme. You may remember Boehme as the guy who came in and led 2 late TD drives last year at Scott Stadium, turning a Hoos blowout into a close game.

The Hoos, of course, are coming off their first win of the year, in a roller coaster game against Central Michigan. The good news is they put up 49 points. The bad news is they blew a 28 point lead.

Game Information:

Who: Duke Blue Devils

Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, NC

When: 12:30 PM ET

TV: ACC Network, WDCA (MyTV 20) in the DC Area

Duke on Offense

QB: #17 Daniel Jones

RB: #29 Shaun Wilson

WR: #83 Anthony Nash, #3 T.J. Rahming, #88 TE Erich Schneider

As I mentioned above, Duke is led by redshirt freshman Daniel Jones. Through 4 games, Jones has acclimated himself very nicely. He’s thrown for over 1000 yards, with 5 TDs and 3 INTs. He has also rushed 36 times for 100 yards and 3 TDs. Though he is not a true “dual-threat” QB, he is more than capable of running the ball. Jones was not heavily recruited, mostly getting attention from Harvard, and other Ivy League schools. His Duke opportunity came in late, after his HS coach met with Cutcliffe.

If you hear “Harvard and the Ivy League” and think that Jones must be a heady player, you’d be right. He’s grown to 6’5” 210, which is tall, but perhaps a bit slight for a QB at this level. He’s not the most athletic of QBs. But he reads the action very well. He always seems to make the correct read on the read-option. So even though he’s not likely to pick up huge chunks of yards, he’s going to make the most of every play. The read option remains a big part of the Duke offense, even with Sirk out. Though now, defenses are more likely to focus on the RBs than the QB.

Duke’s story at running back changed dramatically on Thursday. Leading rusher, Jela Duncan, was listed as “out” on the injury report. Shaun Wilson has generally been the change of pace back, but he’ll be the primary option this week. At 5’9” 180, he’s a smaller, quicker back. He’s fast, though doesn’t really have tremendous straight-line speed. He had a 96 yard KO return TD last week against Notre Dame, which may have helped turned that game (Notre Dame was cruising, up 14-0 at the time). Wilson has 1144 yards rushing in his career, along with 9 TDs. He’s more likely to run to the edges that up the middle,.

Duke has had some very good WRs in recent years. This includes a duo that is tied for the all-time lead in catches in the ACC (with 283 apiece): Jamison Crowder and Conner Vernon. The current group doesn’t have anybody quite that good. But what they lack in top talent, they make up for in depth. Rahming, a sophomore, leads the team with 26 receptions, but he’s averaging just 9 yards per catch. He plays out the slot mostly. Nash is second in catches, but leads with 300 yards receiving and over 15 yards per catch. Nash is the big play guy, and at 6’5”, a lot of those big plays come on jump balls. He has good straight-line speed, but he’s not the type that will break many tackles. That’s Rahming. Schneider is a very big target to watch on 3rd downs and near the endzone. He’s 6’7” and he’s got good hands. He runs pretty well too. We might also see a good bit of Jonathan Lloyd, the 3rd starting WR, who is more of a possession guy.

Duke runs most of its offense out of a read option look. Even on straight passing plays or straight running plays, they will often show a read-option look. This puts a lot of pressure on linebackers to make the correct reads. Luckily, the Hoos have two very good, very experienced inside linebackers. Micah Kiser and Zach Bradshaw may well determine the outcome of this game. If they are making the right reads, and shutting down the Duke run game, that is going to put a lot of pressure on a young QB to make plays.

Jones has talent and smarts, no doubt. But he can get rattled. If Virginia takes away his primary option, there’s a good chance he’ll tuck the ball and start running. He’s a good runner and can pick up some big first downs with his feet. When he runs, pursuit is key. The Hoos have shown a variety of pressure looks with single coverage from the CBs. But this week might be the time to slow that down, show press coverage, and take away the quick passes over the middle. I’d like to see some delayed blitzes from the ILBs, because Jones seems to focus on his WRs and lose sight of the underneath defenders.

Up front, the key for the Hoos defensive line is slowing the read option. Donte Wilkins will be counted on to shut down interior runs. The loss of Duncan is key here, because he’s tough to bring down once he gets a head of steam. Wilson isn’t that type of back. Joe Ajeibe will probably get some looks, but he hasn’t been as successful as Duncan so far. Wilson, meanwhile, will most likely look to run on the outside. He has a tendency to the handoff and run to daylight. With Wilson, the key is for the strong-side DE or OLB to get penetration. If they’re able to do that, Wilson could be forced back into the teeth of the defense. The OLBs want to get upfield quickly, but must be wary of letting Wilson sneak past them on the inside. If Wilson gets into open field, he could be gone.

Despite Duke’s emphasis on the running game, the Blue Devils rank just 78th in the nation in rush yards. They rank 32nd in pass yards and 72nd in passing efficiency. This is what happens when you have replace a redshirt senior QB with a redshirt freshman QB. A year ago, Duke was 37th in rushing offense and 45th in passing offense (36th in total offense). They are getting better, as evidenced by the 31 points they put up last week (7 points came on the KR TD). Notre Dame’s defense, though, appears to be pretty bad (then again, so does the Hoos defense).

Duke is going to score points. Even without Sirk and Duncan, Cutcliffe has collected a lot of talent on offense. And Cutcliffe is as good as anybody at getting the most out of his talent. And Jones may break some records before his career is done.

Duke thrives on big plays. Last week, they scored on a 32 yard pass and a 64 yard pass, along with the 96 yard KO return. The Hoos, of course, have given up a ton of big plays this year. Virginia needs to make Duke work their way up the field and make Jones work. Hopefully, they’ll make a mistake and the defense can capitalize on that.

Duke on Defense

DL: #93 DT A.J. Wolf, #91 DE Marquies Price

LB: #44 WLB Joe Giles-Harris, #34 MLB Ben Humphreys

DB: #31 CB Breon Borders, #26 S Corbin McCarthy

Duke is one of a growing number of teams across the country that runs a nickel defense as its primary set. Teams do this in order to off-set spread offenses by getting more speed and coverage onto the field with an extra defensive back. The down side of the nickel is that it leave the defense more vulnerable to effective running attacks. Most nickel defenses compensate by keeping a safety in the box on early downs. For Duke, that guy has been DeVon Edwards, their leading tackler and arguably most talented player. Edwards, though, tore his ACL and MCL and is out for the season. His loss severely hurts Duke’s cause. Junior Alonzo Saxton replaced Edwards in the secondary, but he’s a converted CB and not nearly the playmaker that Edwards was. Notre Dame piled up over 530 yards of offense with Edwards out. Though Saxton technically plays the same position, Jordan Hayes will likely be the guy coming up into the box.

Virginia’s offense, as we’ve seen, is a pass-first offense. Though the Cavaliers rank 70th in the nation at 4.4 yards per rush, they rank 106th in the nation in rush yards. Conversely, the passing offense ranks 33rd in the nation, despite ranking just 86th in yards per attempt (7 ypa). Both of those numbers were much better last week, as the Hoos averaged 5.7 yards per rush and 9.8 yards per pass. Most impressive, they put up 569 total yards against a team ranked #30 in the nation in total defense. It was a truly remarkable offensive performance last week.

Let’s get back to Edwards for a bit.Part of the reason he’s such a difficult player to replace is because he isn’t just an in-the-box safety. He’s also excellent in pass coverage (7 passes defended last year and 5 INTs in his career) and has played some CB for the Blue Devils. Duke still has two excellent, veteran CBs in Borders and Byron Fields. Borders has 12 INTs in his career and already has 10 passes defended this year. Fields was very good as a sophomore in 2014, finishing 4th on the team in tackles, but missed all last year with a torn ACL.

With 5 DBs on the field most of the time, the Blue Devils only have 2 regular LBs and both are young. With Edwards out, the leading tackler is Giles-Harris, a redshirt freshman. He’s been all over the place, with 27 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. He was a CB in high school and excels in pass coverage. His play against the run has been well above expectations. It remains to be seen if he can keep up that level of production with Edwards out. Next to him is sophomore Ben Humphries, who put up some impressive numbers as a true freshman and also excels in pass coverage. Though Humphries is listed as MLB with Giles-Harris at WLB, they are both really playing an OLB role.

The two LBs are roommates and apparently best friends, and it shows on the field as they work very well together. Although they are young LBs, they rarely get out of position, and they always seem to know where their partner is. Neither of them are really what you’d call sideline-to-sideline LBs, but with 2 LBs on the field, they really only need to cover half of the field. They make a ton of plays on short passes over the middle and in the flats. Those short passes to Smoke that were so successful last week may be more difficult this week because of the pass coverage capabilities of these two. But the threat of those plays may provide for some easier opportunities on the ground. Again, it remains to be seen how Edwards’ absence will affect the duo, especially against the run.

The Blue Devils don’t do a ton of blitzing, but they will come in passing situations. Ten Duke players have at least a half-sack, led by A.J. Wolf with 4 sacks (though three of those sacks came in the season opener against NC Central). The Hoos have had trouble keeping DTs out of the backfield, especially on running plays. Wolf and fellow DT Mike Ramsey are more pass rushing DTs as opposed to run stoppers, but Wolf in particular can hold his own against the run.

When the Blue Devils dial up a blitz, it can come from anywhere. Edwards was a solid blitzer, and Corbin McCarthy has shown to be capable there as well. McCarthy has basically taken over the role of Jeremy Cash, who led the team with 18 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and 8 QB hurries last year. Cash is now a reserve LB for the Panthers, which tells you the type of safety he was. McCarthy is similar, and leads the team with 4.5 TFLs this year.

The Hoos only ran the ball 26 times last week, versus 43 passes. That same ratio would not be ideal against Duke’s nickel defense. Running the ball should be successful this week. Duke is allowing just 3 yards per rush. However, when you remove sacks and other negative runs, that average jumps up to well over 4 yards per rush. And Notre Dame averaged over 5 yards per carry (when removing sacks). The Hoos should have success running the ball this week, especially up the middle. I think Jordan Ellis could have some success, because his bruising, between the tackles running style could really cause problems for Duke. And it would also wear down Duke smallish defenders.

Beyond the ground game, the quick passing game may have to return. The Hoos had success last week with deep passes last week, because CMU didn’t really bring pressure. Duke will not sit back as much as CMU did, though they do have a tendency to give up bigger plays. They rank 93rd in the nation in yards per completion, though they are 49th in passer efficiency. They will play a lot of press coverage, which they can do because of their capable cover corners and also because of the three safeties they have out there. However, Duke’s CBs are going to be giving up 30+ pounds to most of the Hoos WRs, so there is a possibility of throwing back shoulder passes and similar passes and letting the Hoos WRs fight for the ball. This is something to look for when Benkert gets single coverage with one of his bigger WRs.

Duke’s defense is not nearly as good as it looks statistically. They gave up just 112 yards to NC Central. Wake Forest and Northwestern aren’t exactly offensive juggernauts, and both amassed around 400 yards. And Notre Dame (possibly an offensive juggernaut) had over 530 yards. If Kurt Benkert and the OL play as well this week as they did last week, there is no reason why the Hoos shouldn’t rack up yards and points again.

Conclusion

As I mentioned above, many of the recent contests between these two teams have been high scoring affairs. This year should be no different. Both teams are coming off tremendous offensive performances, and both teams are dealing with injuries on defense (none moreso than Edwards’ absence).

The Hoos haven’t won a road game in a long time — nearly 4 years. Their upcoming home schedule is very difficult (Pitt, UNC and Louisville), so a win here would really make things easier heading into that homestand. I think Bronco and Hoos manage to break the road losing streak this week and head home on a high note.

Prediction: Hoos 42, Blue Devils 35