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The Big Preview: Duke at Virginia

Virginia looks to keep the winning streak going

NCAA Football: Virginia at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Following two straight ridiculous road wins, the Virginia Cavaliers return home looking to keep the winning streak going, but hopefully with somewhat less anxiety.

They face a Duke team sitting at 3-3 (0-2 ACC). Duke’s three wins have come against 87, 135 and 170 on Jeff Sagarin’s rankings. Their losses have come against 46, 61 and 118. Virginia ranks 55th.

This game is also homecoming for the Hoos, which hopefully means a good crowd. There may be some rain at kickoff time, but hopefully it’ll let up before too long.

When: Saturday, October 17, 12:30PM Eastern
Where: Scott Stadium

Virginia on Defense

That was probably Virginia’s best defensive effort of the season, considering the opponent and the outcome. Yes, Virginia allowed 33 points, which isn’t great. But they also held Louisville to six FG attempts, including twice on short fields following turnovers. Two of Louisville’s three TDs were big plays.

This actually isn’t bad coverage. Anthony Johnson is a half-step behind his man. It’s a perfect throw. It’s frustrating, but Malik Cunningham is good and his receivers are good. Sometimes, good offense beats good defense. The best way to stop this play is to get pressure on the QB, which is something Virginia has not been able to do this season.

The Hoos are averaging just 1.7 sacks per game, ranking 102nd in the nation. They are actually worse in TFLs, ranking 105th. They ranked 11th in sacks and 25th in TFLs last season. They were 9th and 22nd in 2019. Was Charles Snowden that important to the pass rush? Only four UVA players have even one sack. There just isn’t enough experience or talent in the front seven right now.

On paper, the Duke offense has been pretty good. They rank 12th in total offense, 31st in passing offense and 19th in rushing offense. With all of that, they’re just 49th in scoring offense.

But, break it down and the numbers don’t look as good. Duke averages 495 yards per game. But in their two ACC games, they average 400. UNC’s defense held Duke to 314 yards and 7 points. Virginia, you may recall, put up almost 600 yards against that same defense. Is Duke’s offense legit, or is it just that they’ve faced one of the easiest schedules in the nation?

Virginia’s defense is not good. They rank 97th nationally, averaging 427 yards per game. They have struggled to contain the run, which could be a problem against Duke and RB Matteo Durant. The Duke senior is fourth in the nation in rushing, with almost 800 yards already. He is averaging nearly seven yards per carry and is coming off a 43 carry, 152 yard game last week. Maybe he’s tired.

It isn’t all Durant though. The OL is a big, veteran unit, especially in the middle. Look for straight ahead runs on short yardage, because the combo of the interior OL and Durant are tough to stop.

Durant would score from one-yard out on almost the exact same play just a couple of plays later. They love this pistol formation on short yardage.

Holmberg can run it a bit too. They’ll show some read-option and also run some designed QB draws.

Now, Holmberg isn’t the runner that Malik Cunningham is, and Virginia bottled him up pretty good.

This was a perfectly timed CB blitz. Anthony Johnson is unimpeded and is the first there to make the stop.

On the season, Duke has 288 rush attempts and just 189 pass attempts. They want to run the ball and keep their defense off the field. When they do throw, Holmberg has been very successful, completing over 72% of his passes. They don’t go downfield all that much, but they will.

That is Jake Bobo. He has 45 receptions, a full one-third of the team’s total. That’s 11th nationally and he’s 18th in receiving yards (Billy Kemp is 15th in catches and Dontayvion Wicks is 10th in receiving yards).

Jalon Calhoun is the big play guy. He’s a junior who has started every game of his college career. He’s up to 115 career receptions with 8 TDs. He was a HS QB and threw a TD back in 2019. He’s also a guy to watch on a jet sweep type of run.

Virginia’s defense is improving, but they are still far from good. How they handle Duke’s offense will tell us a lot about where they’re going. If they struggle with Duke, the season’s stretch run is going to cause a lot more anxiety among UVA faithful.

Virginia on Offense

Nobody is really going to complain too much after a win, but the lack of a running game is affecting the Wahoo offense. Virginia had 60 pass attempts and just 20 rush attempts (excluding sacks). More than half of those runs came either in the red zone, or on 2nd/3rd and long. It’s just too predictable. On five 1st-and-10 runs, Virginia averaged a solid 4.4 yards per carry.

Last week, Virginia averaged 7.5 yards to gain on 20 third downs. Nine third downs were 10 or more yards to gain. Sprinkling in some more early down runs would help to stay out of those third-and-longs. Virginia was 9/19 on third downs (one was a penalty and no play), which is impressive considering the distance to go. Virginia was also 2-2 on fourth downs, a big part of why they won.

The Hoos haven’t run Armstrong as much of late, in part because he’s nicked up and in part because they just can’t afford to have him get hurt. Armstrong is leading the nation in passing and is second in total offense. Losing him for any period of time might be devastating to this offense and to this team. But he did have a couple of big scrambles, including this big one which was called back for a holding penalty.

More of this would help to slow down opposing pass rushes, as Armstrong has been sacked over three times per game. Louisville had five sacks, all of them coming when Louisville brought extra pressure. This was not something they did much in the fourth quarter, and they probably regret that.

Of course, there are other ways to slow down a pass rush. One is to get the ball out quickly. Virginia has had success with quick passes to the flats. This one isn’t even a great pass from Armstrong, it’s too high. Usually, on a high pass such as this, the WR gets hit and brought down immediately. Great job from Kemp of reaching to get the ball while avoiding the hit and breaking the tackle.

These types of plays have caused problems for Duke this year.

Duke just seems to forget to cover the RB out of the backfield. The crazy thing is the other RB on the other side of the field is also uncovered. With only a four man rush, what are they doing?

Duke runs a 4-2-5 and the strength of the unit is in the secondary. However, MLB Shake Heyward leads the team in tackles by a wide margin and is also tops in TFLs. They rank 102 in total defense, 106 in pass defense and 89 in rush defense.

Heyward is basically unblocked on this sweep play, and that is not going to work. Need to get a hat on Heyward on every run play.

The CBs, Jeremiah Lewis and Leonard Johnson are both ball hawks and they’ll play a lot of man coverage on the outside receivers.

This is very good coverage and a poor decision to make this throw. Armstrong can’t make those mistakes if Virginia is going to win.

But all that man coverage means that they can be beaten deep. This is the game-winning play for the Yellow Jackets last week. There’s under a minute left in the game and you’re up by four. The you cannot get beaten deep. It’s a five man pass rush, leaving six in coverage against five receivers. Where’s the safety?

Duke seems most susceptible to intermediate passes over the middle. Here’s a couple of throws that Armstrong loves.

First is a post route and second is the seam route. On the first, it’s hard to tell from the clip here, but the receivers cross each other, leaving the CB on the inside WR and the outside guy with LB Dorian Mausi. Second clip is a seam route, in this case to the RB. In both cases, the coverage is well behind the target.

Georgia Tech’s Jeff Sims had success running against Duke, which we may see from Virginia this week. We haven’t seen Armstrong on designed runs very much, but we could see some designed runs for Keytaon Thompson from the QB position.

Virginia should absolutely run the ball more. It helps keep defenses honest, and frankly the RBs (and Thompson) are some of the best players on the team. But this is a week where Armstrong should have a field day picking out open guys for big plays. Perhaps Robert Anae can use those passes to open up some rush lanes for the RBs. Either way, Duke’s defense may be no match for the nation’s sixth ranked offense.


This Duke team isn’t very good. Sure, they’ve put up some good offensive numbers, but against some bad opponents. They rank 100th in Sagarin’s rankings, just ahead of Illinois. You may recall what Virginia did to Illinois.

Duke has lost to the three best teams on their schedule, though they were competitive last week against a decent Georgia Tech team. That game was at home, though. Duke has not looked good on the road, losing to a Charlotte team that lost to Illinois and getting blown out by UNC.

If Virginia plays clean football, they should win this game handily. Rain will help the Blue Devils, who want the run the ball and control the clock.

Duke is ranked roughly where Illinois is, and you may recall what Virginia did to Illinois. In that game, they jumped out to an early lead Illinois wasn’t prepared to play catch-up. Duke’s offense is better than Illinois’, but they also do not want to play catchup. Getting out to an early lead will be critical in this one.

Prediction: Hoos 42, Blue Devils 24 (season record: 4-2)