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Virginia Cavaliers vs. Duke Blue Devils: Complete preview and matchup

Can Virginia improve to 4-1 and start off ACC play with a win?

Miami v Duke
Jones will hope to have a better outing than last season against the Cavaliers.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Virginia football is starting to get some press this year, and finally it’s for the right reasons. The Hoos are finally playing good football and people are noticing. OK, so 3-1 isn’t all that much to write home about, and a home loss to Indiana is disappointing, but getting a road win in dominating fashion over a solid Boise State team has the fanbase excited for the first time in a long time.

Duke, on the other hand, was riding high following a somewhat commanding win over their rival Tar Heels. A 4-0 record had them sniffing the top 25 before hosting Miami last Friday night. They got slaughtered. The Blue Devils looked good on their opening drive until a failed fourth down attempt from the Miami 13 yard line. From there, the Hurricanes then scored 14 unanswered points and after the five minute mark of the first quarter, the game was essentially no longer in doubt. Although it was 17-6 for a long time, it never seemed like Duke was going to come back. Miami put the game away with two fourth quarter TDs.

Last year, the Hoos pretty much thrashed the Blue Devils, forcing six turnovers and getting three touchdown passes from Kurt Benkert. To be honest, considering Virginia won the turnover battle 6-1, the game was closer than it should’ve been. The Hoos led just 27-20 in the fourth quarter when this happened:

That defensive touchdown basically clinched the game for Virginia, even though it was only the fifth turnover of the game for Duke. Their next possession ended in a Juan Thornhill interception, and then Bronco and Co. ran the clock out. There were numerous reasons why the game was closer than it should’ve been, one of which was the offensive line. The Hoos had just 80 yards on the ground, and averaged just 2.2 yards per carry to go along with three sacks of Benkert.

Anyway, that was last year, so let’s take a look at this year’s matchups.

Hoos on Defense

The quarterback who suffered those six turnovers, and that big hit from Jordan Mack, is still around. He was just a freshman last year, and put up some very good numbers for a freshman (even when considering the five picks he threw against the Cavaliers). On the year, Jones threw for 2836 yards, with 16 TDs and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 486 yards and seven TDs. Jones is already 10th on the Duke all-time passing list.

Jones was barely recruited at all outside of Duke and NC State, despite a very productive HS career. He isn’t really a “true” dual-threat guy. He’s obviously capable of making plays with his legs, but he isn’t going to run 50 yards downfield. He is more of a passer than a runner, but makes the most of his athleticism. The read-option is a big part of Duke’s offense and Jones runs it very well. This is why he’s able to pick up so many rush yards despite his lack of true speed. He’s not slow, but I doubt he’s any faster than Benkert.

Duke’s read option leads to a strong running game, which currently rank 29th in the nation in rushing offense. A year ago, they were 89th. A lot of that is Jones getting more comfortable with the ball in his hands. Senior starting RB Shaun Wilson has 412 yards rushing on the season, including 176 yards and two 50+ yard TDs in Duke’s big win over Baylor. Yes, Baylor is 0-3 and isn’t a great team this year, but they did play #3 Oklahoma close. Last year, Wilson led the team with just 623 yards, so that’s been a big part of the improvement this year. Another part is redshirt freshman Brittain Brown, who has 373 yards on 62 carries. The running backs are averaging over six yards per carry as a duo.

Brown was the #18 RB in the nation, according to ESPN. He’s big (6’1” 200) and he runs strong. He is tough to bring down between the tackles, although he still runs a bit too upright. That’ll get better as he gets older. He’s a perfect complement to Wilson, who is smaller and faster. Wilson, with those two long TD runs against Baylor, showed off that speed very well.

Yet another reason for the improved running game is a strong, veteran offensive line. Three of the five O-Line starters are redshirt seniors, led by returning LT Gabe Gardner, who has started 29 games in his career. That also includes RT Evan Lisle, a transfer from Ohio State. The other senior is OC Austin Davis, another returning starter from last year, while junior LG Zach Harmon also returns as a starter from last year. This group is not particularly big, averaging just 296 pounds, which is low for an FBS O-Line (the Hoos average 314 pounds). They move well, and they do some unorthodox pulling in the read option. You might see the LG pull and help set the edge on the right side for a run that way. Oftentimes, a play that looks like a read option may not have been a real option. Of course, the defense has no way of knowing that until they watch film the next day. You’ll see the Hoos do some of the same things, except there’s very little intrigue because Benkert basically never runs.

The Hoos have seen this on film, and the D-Line will be key in slowing down the running game. If the guards are pulling, the lineman across from that guy should be on his hip. The pulling lineman is almost always making the key block, so if there’s a defender behind him, the play is busted. That’s easier said than done of course, but the Hoos D-Line has been very good this year and they should continue to be this week. This is also a read for the ILBs. Kiser and Mack will read the pulling lineman and flow to that block.

Both RBs are solid in the passing game as well. Wilson has already surpassed his receptions total from last year, with 14. Brown has six receptions including a 40-yard play against Baylor, but the RBs are not the key figures in the passing game. That is a group of veteran WRs, led by juniors T.J. Rahming and Jonathan Lloyd. Rahming is the top receiver. He caught 70 balls last year, though averaged just 10 yards per reception. He has 139 receptions already in his career, with a year and a half remaining. Lloyd had just 34 catches last year, which was second on the team, but already has 21 this year. Still, both are averaging just about 10 yards per catch again. The big plays this year have come from backups Chris Taylor and Aaron Young.

Young, in particular, is a deep threat. He’s big and strong and has very good straight line speed. He does not have a catch in the past three games, though. Taylor caught 29 balls last year and is also a good deep threat. Both Young and Taylor are kind of hit or miss as they both have big play ability, but are often absent from the game. Another backup, sophomore Keyston Fuller, missed all of last year after knee surgery, but was the highest rated recruit among the WRs. He’s got talent, but so far has just four catches for 14 yards.

Virginia has struggled this year to contain the read-option and running QBs in general, but this would be the first time that they’ve game-planned for the read-option. There may have some planning for Montell Cozart at Boise State, but he was never expected to be the full-time QB. By the time Cozart was in the game, it was no longer in doubt. Jones is a different matchup, because he’s the QB. Incidentally, Duke’s backup QB, Quentin Harris, is a true dual-threat guy and has rushed 20 times this season, against just 8 pass attempts, although almost all of his playing time has come late in blowouts. The backup QB for the past couple of years, Parker Boehme, also gets some playing time here and there. Boehme is also the holder, so the Hoos should be wary on kicks, because Boehme is very athletic and can run or pass.

The loss of Malcolm Cook hurts, because the OLBs are key against the read-option. Chris Moore has looked very good at OLB, but facing a good read-option QB is a different beast. The Hoos have been very good at getting penetration into the backfield, which is a big part of slowing down the read option. The read-option is, almost by definition, a bit of a slower developing play. If the ball carrier is dodging tacklers behind the line of scrimmage, they aren’t going to be successful.

Duke’s WR corps is not nearly as scary as they’ve been in years past. Guys like Jamison Crowder and Connor Vernon were dangerous pass receivers. Rahming and company do not have the same ability. The Hoos can probably afford to be aggressive with the front 7, getting into Jones’ face and into the backfield to slow down the read option. They can be confident that the secondary can manage Duke’s receiving corps. Even if that means giving up some longer completions, it’s worth it if it forces 6 turnovers again.

Key Matchups

  1. Daniel Jones vs Micah Kiser

Perhaps a bit of a no-brainer. Jones is the QB, and Kiser the “QB of the defense”. Kiser is the key against the read-option because he’s the best player on the defense. If the Blue Devils can get a body on Kiser and keep him away from the ball, they’re going to be successful. Kiser is also the guy who’s most likely to be keying on Jones on pass plays when the play breaks down. Kiser has been just about unblockable so far this year, and he’s going to need to be great again this week.

  1. Bryce Hall/Juan Thornhill vs T.J. Rahming

Rahming is the top threat for the Blue Devils receiving corps. He’s small and quick, which is a different look than most of the WRs the Hoos have faced this year. Rahming isn’t really a deep threat, but he is a threat to take a short pass and break a tackle or two. There’s a reason why he’s returning punts. If Rahming catches a short pass, the Hoos need to get him down quickly. Duke’s big play threats are actually better matchups for the Hoos’ bigger DBs.

  1. Shaun Wilson vs Hoos’ Kick Coverage Unit

Maybe this is cheating, since it isn’t technically defense. But Virginia’s coverage units have been terrible at kick coverage and Shaun Wilson is one of the better kick returners in the nation. He’s got two TDs in his career on kickoff returns and was 24th nationally last year with 25 yards per return. Keeping Wilson in check is important, because the Hoos can’t afford to give Duke short fields.

Hoos on Offense

What has distinguished Duke this year is the play of their defense. Right now, Duke ranks 14th in the nation in total defense. That’s right behind #4 ranked Penn State and up there with some of the best teams in the nation. Of course, Duke hasn’t exactly played a murderer’s row of offenses yet.

Their run defense is ranked sixth nationally, giving up just 80 yards per game. That number, of course, takes into account sacks. The Blue Devils are eighth nationally in sacks. That skews the rushing numbers a bit. Northwestern, for example, had just 22 yards rushing, but -40 yards on 4 sacks. Of course, 62 rushing yards still isn’t very much, but you get the point.

A year ago, Duke finished 67th in total defense. That defense lost two starting linemen and all three starting safeties (sort of, DeVon Edwards was the opening day starter, but missed the final eight games of last season with a torn ACL). So, safe to say nobody really expected this type of performance. And maybe the opposition has had something to do with it.

The Blue Devils play a base 4-2-5 defense, with three safeties. The three safety positions are called “Bandit”, “Strike” and “Rover”. Duke has had some pretty safeties come through over the past few years, including Jeremy Cash (currently a LB for the Carolina Panthers) and Devon Edwards (who would be in the NFL if not for the ACL). The difference between the three safeties isn’t as exact science, but the Bandit is essentially the Free Safety, the Strike is the Strong Safety and the Rover is the extra DB who essentially plays as hybrid OLB/S.

The two LBs are the top returning tacklers, and are still the strength of the defense. WLB Joe Giles-Harris is currently leading the team with 43 tackles (as a comparison, Micah Kiser has 45 tackles, in one fewer game). Ben Humphries, last year’s top tackler, is third with just 22 tackles. That duo has combined for 12 TFLs so far. As a team, the Blue Devils are averaging eight TFLs per game, which is 10th in the nation. (The Hoos average 6.5 TFLs.) The two LBs excel in pass coverage, especially underneath zones. The easy passes over the middle to Evan Butts that have been a big part of the offense this year may not be there this week.

Even though the LBs are the top unit, the best player on the Duke defense so far this year has been junior DT Mike Ramsay. He has 4.5 sacks, seven TFLs and is fifth on the team with 18 tackles. He also has six QB hurries. A year ago, he totaled 0.5 sacks, 2.5 TFLs and two QB hurries. His emergence has been huge for a unit that lost leading sack-man A.J. Wolf from last year.

Also gone are DeOndre Singleton and Corbin McCarthy. Both were starting since their freshman years, and both were all around playmakers. Singleton led the team last year with three INTs, while McCarthy led the team with 12 TFLs. He also had 3.5 sacks, which is lot for a DB. The returning safety, Alonzo Saxton II, is currently second on the team in tackles. He’s doing his best McCarthy impressive, with 2.5 TFLs and a sack already this year. Saxton was Edwards’ replacement last year and played pretty well, totally 53 tackles, an INT, and 2 fumble recoveries.

Replacing Singleton and McCarthy isn’t easy, but Duke at least had experienced players waiting in the wings. Jeremy McDuffie is the new starting Strike and he started twice as a true freshman in 2015. Jordan Hayes had two starts last year, and he’s the new starting Bandit.

As far as the CBs go, the leader is senior Byron Fields, Jr. He already has three INTs this year, including this pick-six against the Tar Heels:

Fields did well there, but that’s one of the worst throws and worst decisions you’ll ever see from a QB. Safe to say Kurt Benkert isn’t going to try any two-handed jump passes. Fields had a pick-six last year against Pitt. He can play.

Next to Fields is sophomore Mark Gilbert, a tall and lean CB with outstanding athleticism and very good man cover skills. Gilbert wants to play press coverage and wants to be physical. But he needs to add another 15 pounds of muscle to really be successful at this level. Gilbert had three starts last year and has started every game so far this year. That actually points to a big reason why Duke has been successful early this year. They have the same 22 starters on O and D in every game. Whereas the Hoos have already lost one starter for the season (Tim Harris), another for a game (Joe Reed) and yet another for multiple games (Cook), the Blue Devils haven’t had a single notable injury all season. Lucky them.

As with most of the matchups the Hoos have had this year, they have a big advantage on the outside. Duke’s CBs are 175 and 185 pounds, the safeties are 175, 180 and 180. Virginia’s WRs are 190, 215, 220 and 225. That’s a very big difference. As mentioned above, the LBs and Ss are heavily involved in the pass rush. This means blitzes, which often means man coverage. The Hoos have a big advantage there. So that means that either Duke won’t blitz as much, or that Benkert will have mismatches where he can go when he is blitzed. The size advantage will also help on outside runs, as the Hoos outside blockers will have a big advantage.

The emergence of Ramsay has made blitzing less necessary for the Blue Devils. True freshman DE Drew Jordan has also helped. He has three sacks on the season, despite only playing in obvious passing situations. Jordan was one of the top pass rushing recruits in the nation even though he was seen as a bit of a tweener. He’s put on a good amount of weight since his days as a recruit (listed in recruiting services at 236 pounds, he’s now listed by Duke at 255). This makes him a much better fit as a DE. He’s quickness off the snap is outstanding and he’s a natural pass rusher. At this point in his career, he’s not asked to do much else. He’s very aggressive at getting to the QB. The Hoos would be wise to consider a screen pass or even a run to his direction when he comes in the game. Aside from a possible successful play, this may also slow Jordan down the next time.

Duke’s defense isn’t all that dissimilar from Boise State’s. The Blue Devils DL is better, but Boise State’s secondary is probably better. Duke also plays a more aggressive defense than the Broncos did. Robert Anae and company will hopefully be prepared for that aggression, with some misdirection and off-tendency looks.

A trick play would also be fun. We haven’t seen that this year, other than the ill-fated fake FG against Indiana. Even something as simple as a reverse would really slow down Duke’s aggression. Using De’Vante Cross as a wildcat QB could be useful as well. But please, no overhead two-handed jump passes please.

Key Matchups

  1. Andre Levrone vs Byron Fields, Jr

Levrone is the top WR for the Hoos, and also the biggest of a big group of WRs. He’s got 348 yards receiving and four TDs. He’s also averaging almost 27 yards per catch. That’s outstanding. He’s coming off back-to-back 100 yard performances and is providing big plays - something the Duke defense has been susceptible to this year. They gave up pass plays of 27 and 49 yards to Miami, 44, 73 and 79 yards against Baylor, and 45 yards against UNC, They’ve also given up runs of 81 yards to NC Central, 56 yards to UNC and 40 yards to Miami. This is the price of an aggressive defense, as Wahoo fans learned during the Jon Tenuta years.

Levrone has a big size advantage over Fields (and Gilbert) and also likely has better straight line speed. If Benkert has time to throw, a deep ball to Levrone has a good chance of being successful again.

  1. Mike Ramsay vs Dillon Reinkensmeyer

It isn’t just Dillon who will be responsible for keeping Ramsay out of the backfield, but he usually lines up in the A-gap. This means that Dillon will often have the first shot at slowing him down. The Wahoo OL has been greatly improved over the past two games, and the numbers show it. Getting Jordan Ellis going will be key and that means opening up holes on the inside.

There are ways to slow Ramsay down, which include some read-option, and maybe a middle screen to Olamide Zaccheus. But simply put, if Ramsay lives in the backfield all day, Virginia isn’t going to win the game.

  1. Jordan Ellis vs Humphries/Giles-Harris

As mentioned, the Virginia offense needs to be able to run the ball to be effective. Just look at their numbers from the past two games versus the first two. The emergence of the ground game has made the entire offense click. The two best run stoppers for the Blue Devils are the two LBs. If Ellis can get past them (or through them) he could be in for a big day.

Like most of the rest of Duke’s defense, the LBs are a bit undersized. At 225 pounds, Ellis is roughly the same size as both. With a head of steam, Ellis is tough to bring down, and a couple of broken tackles could lead to a big running play.

Conclusion

Duke’s FBS wins this year have come against a trio of teams with a combined 3-11 record. Only one of those games came on the road, and that was down the street in Chapel Hill. Then they played a good team, at home, and got crushed. It’s possible they weren’t as good as everybody thought. They did, after all, go 4-8 last year.

But it’s also possible they are that good. They dominated Northwestern and Baylor, neither of which are world beaters, but both have played top 10 teams close. And a road win a rivalry game is never easy. Ask the Hoos, who haven’t won in Blacksburg in 20 years. And the ‘Canes are 3-0 and ranked #13 in the nation (not that the Canes have played anybody either, in part due to the South Florida Hurricanes).

The Hoos win over Boise State seems better than any of Duke’s wins. But we don’t really know if Boise State is any good this year. And they did lose, at home, to Indiana. In other words, there are a ton of unknowns about these two teams. That’ll probably change on Saturday.

Duke has won two of the past four games in Charlottesville, but prior to that they won just one of the previous 13. If the Hoos come out like they did two weeks ago, they’ll get an easy win. If they come out flat like they did against Indiana, they won’t. I’m counting on Bronco and Micah Kiser having the team ready to go.

Prediction: Hoos 31, Duke 20