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THE BIG PREVIEW: How Virginia can bounce back against Duke this Saturday

‘Hoos play their second straight road game, this time down South in Durham.

Duke v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers had yet another disappointing game this weekend against the Syracuse Orange. Sure, it was a close game and there were some bright spots. But, overall, the team just feels disappointing.

Fans got used to seeing good execution on offense last year, but we haven’t seen that this season. And, although the defense is doing some good things, there are still too many big plays being allowed, which Virginia fans are also quite familiar with. All of this just makes this young season feel like a disappointment so far.

Duke hasn’t really had those problems. The Blue Devils are 3-1, with their lone blemish coming in a close loss on the road to an undefeated Kansas team. Their three wins aren’t exactly mind blowing, but wins are wins. They’ve played well, and they are halfway towards bowl eligibility. A home win over the ‘Hoos would obviously go a long way on that front.

This will be the first time Virginia faces Duke in Durham since 2018. The ‘Hoos have won seven straight in the series, including the past two in Durham. This time, though, Duke is favored by two points at home.

Virginia on Defense

We have started to see glimpses of what John Rudzinski and company want this defense to be. On the road, on a short week, against a very good Syracuse offense, the Wahoos allowed just 352 yards, including only 75 yards on the ground. They also forced four turnovers for the second time this season.

With six sacks against Syracuse last week, the Wahoos are 5th in the nation in sacks. This was not a Syracuse OL that was giving up sacks in bunches. Even after the six sacks, the Orange are giving up just 2.5 sacks per game (35th in the nation). This is, in part, because they are a running team. But because they couldn’t run the ball, they were forced to throw the ball more.

These are both tremendous efforts by Virginia’s defensive linemen. Five different Wahoos had sacks, and four were defensive lineman. These aren’t blitzes. A couple were coverage sacks, but these were just a guy beating a guy. If that happens regularly, the defense is generally going to be successful.

The offense did Rudzinski’s unit no favors, especially in the first half. Multiple short fields and quick three and outs (or four and outs) put a lot of pressure on the defense. But the defense also allowed four Syracuse drives of 10 plays or more. That led to a 10 minute gap in time of possession, and is a big part of why Syracuse won this game.

Syracuse had 17 plays of 10 or more yards, but just three over 20 yards. Just two were run plays, and both were QB scrambles (if you’re wondering, Virginia had nine plays of 10 yards or more, and one of those was on a third and 15 and came up short of the sticks). That is how you struggle to get off the field despite holding the opponent to 5/15 on third downs.

This Duke team has a very potent passing offense, led by sophomore QB Riley Leonard. Leonard has completed over 70% of his passes, and is averaging over 10 yards per attempt.

This was early in the game last week against Kansas. If Leonard has Eli Pancol in one-on-one coverage outside, he’s going to throw him the ball deep.

Pancol is the big play guy, but Jalon Calhoun is the team’s leading receiver with 17 catches for 291 yards. Calhoun is starting for the fourth straight year, but has never really done much against the Wahoos. In three games, he’s totaled 11 catches for 96 yards. He’s dangerous, but Virginia has had his number.

Coming into this game, Duke has the #45 passing offense in the nation, but the #40 rushing offense. Their passing game has been very efficient in part because the ground game has been so good. Leonard is one of three Duke players with over 200 yards rushing on the season (Virginia has one).

This is Jordan Waters, who leads the team with 215 yards on 38 carries, but Jaylon Coleman is right behind him with 211 yards on 39 carries. They are listed as “or” on the depth chart, and will pretty much split carries. Waters is the quicker of the two, as you can see above. Coleman is bigger and is a more punishing back.

One of the reason’s Duke’s passing game has been so good is that the OL has allowed just four sacks in four games. That’s tied for 21st in the nation. If Virginia is able to get pressure on Leonard without having to bring extra pass rushers, they should have success. But the ‘Hoos can’t afford any breakdowns or big plays, especially not considering the way Virginia’s offense is playing.

Virginia on Offense

That the offense has disappointed this year is not in doubt. Even fans who realized things would be different this year are frustrated by what they’ve seen.

Undoubtedly, Armstrong has been bad. We dove into that yesterday. But it’s not all him. He has two pass rushers in his face as soon as he turns around. He’s running for his life. When he has time, he’s rushing things. Because the pass rush impacts you even when they don’t get to you.

One of Armstrong’s strengths is his ability to improvise and make plays after the defense has broken down. Whether that’s running, or finding open guys. That suited last year’s offense, especially with a veteran offensive line. This offense is a different one that prioritizes timing and reads more than the “backyard football” Armstrong excels at.

New offense, old offense, this is a poor decision from Armstrong. It’s also a very strange play call. The Hoos also need better blocking on the edge from the wide receivers.

Ah, the WRs. Incredibly disappointing, as discussed in our roundtable this week. Drops, fumbles and poor routes have plagued this group. Again, the offense is different and maybe there’s some frustrations about the changes. But that doesn’t excuse dropping easy passes.

Billy Kemp’s absence due to dehydration has hurt, as does the loss of a solid receiving TE. Kemp was always open, and was a reliable receiver. Armstrong likes the deep throws over the middle. The seam to Jelani Woods was a big one last year. Fortunately, Kemp will be back this weekend against Duke.

But, on this play, it’s obvious that Misch isn’t Woods and Armstrong waits too long to make this throw. It’s hard to tell from this shot if Misch was open sooner, but Woods probably would’ve been. Armstrong telegraphs the throw, which actually might’ve been okay if he’d thrown it on time. He also didn’t get everything on the throw because of the late pressure, again caused by him holding the ball too long. Armstrong just does not seem comfortable right.

But then, once in a while, we see the old Armstrong and how he connected with his receivers last year (and the season before as well).

This isn’t as easy as it looks. The pass has a lot of zip on it, which means it has to be very accurate. And Davis has to beat his man, or it’s an interception. Good play from both Armstrong and Davis, and a big fourth down touchdown.

Duke’s defense is solid, but not great. It’s 71st in rushing defense, averaging 140 yards per game, and 94th in passing defense, allowing 252 yards per game.

It is generally not a good sign when your top two tacklers are the starting safeties. Darius Joiner and Jaylen Stinson are both outstanding safeties, but when the guys furthest from the line are making most of the tackles, you’re probably giving up some yards.

Shaka Heyward is the actually the best player on this defense, and is tied for the team lead in TFLs, along with leading the team in pass breakups.

They play a 4-2-5, with some fairly undersized defensive ends. The team has eight sacks on the season, and five have come from the defensive tackles. Four of those sacks came against North Carolina A&T, an FCS school. This defense isn’t really going to get much pressure without bringing extra rushers.

They don’t actually blitz much, which means Armstrong should have time to throw, and just needs to make the correct reads. We haven’t seen much of the deep passing game this season, in large part due to pass rush issues. That may come back this week if Armstrong has time to throw.


The Blue Devils have certainly looked better overall than the ‘Hoos have this year. Even in their loss to Kansas, they played well and stayed in the game throughout. Virginia has mostly looked bad all year. If that continues, the Blue Devils should win at home.

But did Virginia find something defensively last week? Did Elliot’s squad figure out how to stop the run? Did they figure out how to rush the passer? The offense got its act together in the second half enough to put the team in position to possibly steal a win on the road, so maybe they’re moving in the right direction. Maybe?

Duke hasn’t really been tested much, Virginia has an extra day of rest (coming off a short week, that is under-appreciated), and that leads to Virginia’s ownership of Duke continuing for another year.


Virginia 24, Duke 17 (record so far this year: 4-0)