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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia at Duke

Can the Hoos put themselves in good position in the ACC Coastal with a road win in Durham?

NCAA Football: Duke at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers are coming off arguably the biggest win of the Bronco Mendenhall era, but have no time to relish the victory as they get right back to it with a road game against the Duke Blue Devils. Duke is currently 5-1, with the loss coming at home against Virginia Tech. Last week, the Blue Devils picked up a 14 point road win over Georgia Tech, aided in party by four Yellow Jacket fumbles.

All time, the Hoos are 36-33 against Duke. That’s a lot better than their record against most of the ACC (against current ACC teams, Virginia is 228-303-12 all time). Virginia has actually won the last three contests against Duke, but are just four of the past 10. Duke is, somewhat surprisingly, a 7-point favorite in this one.

The game kicks off at 12:30 Eastern at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC. It will air on ACC Network/WatchESPN.

Let’s get on to the matchups.

Virginia on Offense

The Wahoo offense didn’t do a whole lot last week. Producing only 231 yards of total offense isn’t going to get it done most weeks, and throwing three interceptions is going to end in a loss most weeks. Winning with both of those numbers is pretty rare, and was the first time it’d happened to any FBS team in three years.

But that wasn’t a typical performance from the Hoos this season. Virginia’s offense is ranked 57th in the nation, with the rush offense at 49th and the pass offense at 75th. Miami currently has the No. 1 defense in the nation, the No. 11 rush defense and No. 2 pass defense. Compare that to this week’s opponent, Duke, who ranks 38th in total defense, 46th in rush defense and 49th in pass defense. In other words, things will be easier this week.

Easier isn’t the same as easy. Those rankings pale in comparison to Miami, but they’re still in the top 40% of the NCAA. This is a solid defense the Hoos will be facing. It’s yet another 4-2-5, nickel defense. But strangely, the strength of the defense is the two LBs. Usually a team with good LBs isn’t a 4-2-5. The two LBs are Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys. All they did last year against Virginia was combine for 24 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, a forced fumble, and a pass break-up. Much of that was Giles-Harris, who led the team in tackles and TFLs last year (by a wide margin) and is leading in tackles again.

He’s not leading in TFLs though, and that is partly because they now have some very talented pass rushing DEs. The first is Victor Dimukeje, who was a freshman All-American last year. The second is freshman Chris Rumph. Rumph has a team-leading 7.5 TFLs and he doesn’t even start. He had four TFLs last week against GT. He’s undersized for a DL at just 225 pounds, but he’s very quick off the snap and has quickness around the edge. He was deployed as a LB against the triple option of GT and Army. Here’s a clip of Rumph sacking Baylor’s Charlie Brewer:

He comes on an inside rush, with 310 pound Derrick Tangelo stunting outside. The RG isn’t ready for it, and is leaning towards the DT. Once he realizes that Tangelo is going outside, Rumph is past him and into the QB’s face. Communication on the line will be key because of all the stunts and other moves Duke will use to free up pass rushers.

Tangelo and the other DTs are all very big. Four of the five FTs listed on the depth chart are over 300 pounds. They’re good run stuffers, but have combined for just 1.5 sacks. As in the play above, they’re often used on stunts to help open things up for Duke’s pass rushers.

Normally, the Blue Devils start three safeties. There’s a “strike”, a “bandit” and a “rover”. The Rover is junior Dylan Singleton and he’s probably the best of the group. He’s tied (with Humphreys) for second on the team in tackles. He’s a bit on the small side, but is a physical player who can both make a tackle inside and also has cover skills. He’s not really going man-to-man against a good TE, but Duke runs a lot of zone schemes and he’s a perfect fit there. At Bandit is Marquis Waters, a sophomore who was excellent on special teams last year. Waters has elite speed and quickness. He runs about a 4.4 and could very easily have been slotted at WR. DB does seem to be the correct spot for him, and he’s just a playmaker. He’s 4th on the team in tackles, 2nd in passes defended, first (tied) in QB hurries, plus has an INT, a fumble recovery and has blocked a kick. Waters is going to be a big part of Duke’s defense in the future.

Speaking of big parts of the defense, CB Mark Gilbert was first team All-ACC last year and was a preseason All-American. Similarly, Jeremy McDuffie was a pre-season Thorpe Award nominee and preseason All-ACC candidate. Those two were expected to lead the Blue Devil secondary. McDuffie has barely played as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered last year and Gilbert was lost for the season after dislocating his hip against Northwestern.

With those two guys out, Duke has had to retool the secondary. Freshman Josh Blackwell is starting for Gilbert at CB. He’s another athletic DB who had previously excelled on special teams. Blackwell might not be quite ready for prime time though and at 5’11, 175 gets pushed around by bigger WRs. Here’s two examples.

Sure, perhaps that first one is offensive pass interference, but it’s rarely called. Both of those plays are by bigger WRs, and Virginia has some big ones in 6’3, 215 pound Hasise Dubois and 6’1, 215 pound Joe Reed. Is Blackwell ready to battle those big, strong guys for a jump ball? Robert Anae will try to find out.

The other CB is Michael Carter II, who is listed as a safety. He’s really a better safety prospect than a CB prospect, but he’s just a football player who needs to be on the field. Carter leads the team in pass break-ups and also has one of the team’s three INTs. At 5’10, 185 pounds, he’s also a smaller CB, but he’s a physical player. He is known as a hitter, which is more of a safety trait than a CB trait. He’s struggled at times wrapping up for tackles, which could be a problem this week. Jordan Ellis didn’t get enough credit for running over Miami’s JaQuan Johnson on his TD last week. Watch the play again:

Johnson is in perfect position to stop Ellis at the 2-yard line. But Ellis just trucks him. Johnson is one of the top safeties in the nation and a potential first round pick. He’s also 5’11, 195 pounds, which means he’s giving up 30 pounds to Ellis. If Johnson can’t stop Ellis, Duke’s DBs won’t either.

Virginia on Defense

Virginia gave up just 13 points last week to a team that averages over 40. They forced three turnovers. They gave up 339 total yards, which is actually above their season average., although 93 yards of that came late in the game against a tired defense on Miami’s sole TD drive.

Duke’s offense, at least on paper, is just as good as Miami’s. They are ranked 54th in S&P, while Miami ranks 55th. Miami has the 75th ranked offense, while Duke is 81st. They way that they get there isn’t the same though. Miami has a superb offensive line with four potential NFL draft picks. Right now, Duke has a single likely NFL draft pick on the line, though with a young group that could change. Center Zach Harmon is on the preseason Rimington Award Watch list. Harmon spent most of his career at OG before moving this year. For the most part, the rest of the OL is inexperienced. That will make the work of the Wahoo’s defensive front a bit easier. It is a big OL, with four guys weighing in at 310 pounds. But like Miami, it isn’t the most mobile of OLs. So Virginia’s quickness on defense will be evident again.

That defensive front gets a boost from the projected return of NT Jordan Redmond. Redmond didn’t see action against Miami, although he was cleared to play. Against Miami, Virginia spent most of the game in two man fronts. This added speed on the field to help combat Miami’s team speed. Virginia deployed OLBs Chris Peace and Charles Snowden in a 3 point stance at times, giving a look similar to a 4 man defensive front.

Duke is led by QB Daniel Jones. Jones is projected as a potential first round pick, and even as the top QB by some draft analysts. However, he hasn’t had much success against the Hoos in his career. He’s faced the Hoos twice now and here are his numbers:

Daniel Jones vs. Virginia

Year Completions Attempts Yards TDs INTs
Year Completions Attempts Yards TDs INTs
2017 14 42 124 1 2
2016 33 54 324 1 5

All told, that’s 47-for-96 (49%) for 448 yards (4.67 yards per attempt), with two TDs and seven INTs. That’s poor. He’s added 60 yards rushing on 17 attempts, for about 3.5 yards per carry. There was also this:

Jones is probably thrilled that Mack isn’t available for this game. I wanted a reason to watch that again.

Jones missed two games this year after fracturing his clavicle. Amazingly, he was back just three weeks later. Although he has thrown for over 5000 yards over the past two years, he has completed under 60% of his passes, and averaged just 6.25 yards per attempt. In 2016, he ranked 30th nationally in completion percentage and 99th in yards per attempt. Then in 2017, he was 92nd in completion percentage and 119th in yards per attempt. Do those numbers sound like NFL draft pick numbers? His numbers went down between his 1st and 2nd year on the field. That’s a problem.

His numbers this year are up. Way up. Right now, he’s 16th in completion percentage and 38th in yards per attempt. Those sound like NFL numbers. It’ll be interesting to see what his numbers look like a month from now, after games against Virginia, Miami and Clemson.

The Blue Devils will line up with three WRs most of the time. This is what their offense looks like. There is a lot of misdirection. There’s zone-read, and there’s a lot of play-action. This is a delayed draw:

The WR corps this year is largely the same as the WR corps last year, but now it’s a year older and a year better. Senior T.J. Rahming leads the group in receptions, though he’s just one ahead of Jonathan Lloyd. Rahming had 65 receptions last year for nearly 800 yards. Lloyd had just 39 receptions last year. Rahming is the slot guy and, like Jeff Thomas last week, doesn’t always run typical slot routes.

In this play, he runs a go. It’s actually very likely an option route where he’s reading the defense. Because two defenders react to the play fake to the RB in the flat, Rahming goes deep and is essentially uncovered. That’s a mistake by Baylor’s defense. Keep in mind that this play was with backup QB Quentin Harris in the game. Rahming also returns punts.

Lloyd is more of a possession guy. He averaged just over nine yards per catch last year, up to about 12 this year. Miami’s Lawrence Cager was able to get open on the sidelines over and over again last week, and Lloyd is capable of doing the same thing. He’s dangerous in the end zone as well, as evidenced below.

By the way, this ball could not be thrown any better by Daniel Jones. Jones also has Aaron Young who is a big play guy (20 yards per carry) and TE Daniel Helm, who is a very strong possession guy.

On the year, Duke has rushed 246 times and thrown 176. Some of that is due to the blowouts early in the year and the injury to Jones. Last year, they had 469 pass attempts and 547 rush attempts, which is still well over 50% rushes. Duke’s offense is really built to run the football. They have a pair of sophomore RBs in Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson. They are similar backs, though Brown has a bit more wiggle and Jackson is bigger. Brown missed last week’s game against Georgia Tech, and has been dealing with injuries all year. He’s still listed as the starter, but they likely split carries. The two RBs are also the primary kick returners.

This offense really might not be as good as the numbers say. They’ve only broken 400 total yards once, and that came against NC Central, who rank 115th in FCS in total defense (which isn’t great). Against FBS teams, their top output is 399 against Baylor’s 88th ranked defense, and that is about 10 fewer yards than Baylor averages. They had 381 yards (and 34 points) against Army, which is the highest ranked defense they’ve played. If Virginia plays defense like they did last week, they can absolutely shut down the Blue Devils.


If this were a home game, it seems like a no-brainer that Virginia would win. Duke seems overrated again. The best team they played was VT, and they got blown out at home. If Duke wins, and then performs against Miami and Clemson, then maybe I’m wrong.

Still, it seems Virginia might be due a letdown after all the emotion of last week’s win. Going on the road to play in a small stadium that doesn’t draw a very boisterous crowd, it’s going to be tough for Virginia to muster the same energy that they had last week.

I still think the spread is too high, but Duke comes out on top.

Prediction: Blue Devils 21, Virginia 17 (season record: 4-2)