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Grading Virginia’s performance against Duke

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The rust coming off the bye week was evident. But a win’s a win!

NCAA Football: Duke at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

After a couple of blowout wins, the Virginia Cavaliers were probably due a close game, particularly heading into conference play. Coming in at 4-1 off a tough loss against a very good Miami team, the Duke Blue Devils are a good team. You could tell Virginia was coming off the bye week as they worked off the rust over the first 20 minutes or so of game time in Saturday’s matchup.

But once things started the click, the Hoos did what they’ve been doing all season long. They made it difficult for Duke QB Daniel Jones to get anything going with the pass, and they held strong against the run game. Offensively, they were able to get Jordan Ellis going and Kurt Benkert continued what he’d been doing all season long, finding eight different receivers and throwing three TDs.

Let’s take a look at the performances.

Offense

The offense was the rustiest coming off the bye week. At the end of the first quarter, the Hoos had 41 total yards, and Benkert was just 4/7 throwing the ball. The Hoos had 10 rush attempts for 21 yards (this is excluding a 7-yard sack). The passing game wasn’t much better, with 7 attempts for 20 total yards (27 yards passing minus that sack).

Virginia’s rushing offense has been the difference maker over the past two contests, and the Hoos were trying to get the ground game going on Saturday. Having Jordan Ellis and company as a viable threat have made the passing game even more dangerous. But the Hoos are a passing team, and are going to live and die on the arm of Kurt Benkert. The ground game is important, but it is going to come from the threat of the pass. It may be that the Hoos were too intent on running the ball.

The coaching staff may have come to the same conclusion. The first full drive of the second quarter featured three consecutive passes, then a punt. The following drive called for two passes and a run (one pass play ended with a Kurt Benkert scramble), followed again with a punt. These two drives were not successful, but they were more in line with what the Hoos have been doing all season.

Perhaps the change made Benkert and the offense more comfortable, because the next drive featured 7 passes, 2 runs, and a touchdown for a 69-yard drive. The drive began with 4 straight pass plays, and then an 8 yard run. Duke was ready for pass, and the Hoos were finally able to run the ball successfully. The other run went for 5 yards. All three penalties on the Duke secondary on that drive were in large part due to good play calls and aggressive routes run the Cavalier WRs. One of those penalties wiped away a pick-6 for the Blue Devils.

Here’s a quick look at Virginia’s second-half drives:

Virginia’s Second Half Drives

Passes Runs Yards Result
Passes Runs Yards Result
8 3 79 Touchdown
2 1 4 Punt
9 4 47 Downs
9 5 80 Touchdown
2 1 5 Punt
1 3 17 Punt

Those last two drives came late as the Hoos were trying to run the clock out. The Cavalier coaching staff went back to what this offense is built on, namely throwing the ball. And it worked. It wasn’t the most efficient of performances from Benkert, but it got the job done.

Grade: B-

Defense

Duke’s offense came into the game averaging 445 yards per game, 43rd in the nation. They were averaging over 33 points per game. Virginia held them to 255 yards and just 14 points (remember 7 points came on a pick-6). Not only that, but the Wahoo defense scored 7 points of their own.

In other words, this was a very good defensive performance against a pretty good offense. They held Daniel Jones to just 14/42 passing. They held leading rusher Shaun Wilson to just 28 yards rushing. They held leading receiver T.J. Rahming to just two catches for 39 yards. That’s how you shut down an offense.

The Blue Devils had one successful drive all game, and that was due largely to Daniel Jones runs. On the drive, Jones had four carries for 50 yards. Backup QB Quentin Harris also had a three-yard run. This has been a recurring problem all season for the Wahoo defense, but after that one drive, Jones was unable to get anything going on the ground.

The defense this game was different from the past few games. The Hoos had 2 sacks, but both came on the Blue Devil’s final drive. They had 2 other TFLs, but for a grand total of just 3 yards. The pass coverage was outstanding throughout the day. Yes, the DL and LBs were in the backfield a lot, and that helped. But Duke was trying to win this game via the pass, and they were unable to get anything going.

Duke’s WR corps simply isn’t all that dangerous, and that was a big part of the Virginia game plan. Coach Mendenhall and his staff were confident that the DBs could handle Duke’s WRs one-on-one for the most part. So the Hoos spent a lot of time with Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall in man coverage, with zone underneath. They let Jones have some short passes, but denied anything down the field.

Sure, they were aided by a poor outing from Jones. But the poor outing was aided by the pressure he felt off the edge from Chris Peace and Jordan Mack, as well as up the middle from Andrew Brown. Brown didn’t do much according to the stat sheet, with just 2 tackles. But early on, he was in the backfield on almost every play, repeatedly pushing Jones out of the pocket. Jones never got comfortable and that was a big part of the defense’s success.

Grade: A

Special Teams

You may recall that I noted in my preview that the Hoos needed to be wary of Shaun Wilson on kick returns. The Virginia kick coverage unit bit them again, as Wilson had a 76 yard return. The Hoos are 124th in the nation in kickoff coverage, and it has hurt them repeatedly this season. If the Cavaliers are going to continue to be successful this season, this is a prime area to focus on.

The rest of the special teams units were outstanding. A.J. Mejia did not attempt a FG, but was 4/4 on PATs, with no drama. And Lester Coleman gets a game ball for averaging over 50 yards per punt, and allowing just one return. All told the Hoos averaged 46.5 net yards per punt. Over a full season, that would be #1 in the nation. That is outstanding.

Still, T.J. Rahming’s one return was a 14 yard return, so the punt coverage unit isn’t doing a whole lot better than the kick coverage unit. They rank 104th.

Grade: C-

Highlight

The defense as a whole could be highlighted here, as they did such an outstanding job. But we’re going to look specifically at the LBs this week.

Micah Kiser has been getting all the publicity, and rightly so. But the entire unit has been outstanding. This week, 5 LBs saw action on defense, and they totaled 31 tackles. They also had both sacks and all 4 TFLs. The group shut down the underneath passing routes, they rushed the passer and they bottled up Duke’s running game.

Right now, the defense is ranked 24th in the nation, and the LBs are the biggest reason why.

Grade: A