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3 players, 2 matchups, and 1 prediction for Virginia football vs Duke

Previewing Saturday’s contest against the Blue Devils as the ‘Hoos look for another upset win.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a bad home loss to Georgia Tech, the Virginia Cavaliers went to Louisville on a short week and very nearly knocked off the #11 team in the country. Had a couple of 50/50 calls gone the Wahoos way, they probably come out on top.

For Virginia fans, our biggest concern right now is regarding Perris Jones, who suffered a spinal injury due to an unpenalized helmet-to-helmet hit. How does that hit go unpenalized? This is why targeting penalties were introduced into college football. One of too many bad calls by the officials in that game.

Duke began the season 4-0, including a win over Clemson. They reached as high as 16th in the poll. They’ve since fallen to 6-4, with all four losses coming against currently ranked teams, including last week’s 47-45 loss to UNC in double-OT.

The Blue Devils won last year’s matchup, coming off seven straight wins by Virginia. Duke is favored by four.

Game Time: Saturday, November 18, 3:00PM Eastern
TV: The CW
Streaming: None

Three Players to Watch

QB Grayson Loftis

Duke’s starting QB on the depth chart is Riley Leonard. But he is out indefinitely with a toe injury. This has thrust Loftis, a true freshman, into the starting lineup. Henry Belin is actually the backup, but he is also hurt.

It’s similar to Virginia and Anthony Colandrea. The difference is Leonard was preseason All-ACC and was being discussed in some places as a potential first round draft pick. Loftis came in with more pressure than Colandrea did, as the Blue Devils were fighting for bowl eligibility.

His numbers are mediocre. He has completed exactly half of his passes, and averaged under 6 yards per pass. He does have four TDs.

This was his first career TD. This is a great throw. He has time in the pocket and drives the ball downfield. That’s Jordan Moore with the reception. He has all four of Loftis’ TDs. Probably should cover him.

Tre Freeman

A LB in their 4-2-5 defense, Freeman leads the team in tackles by a wide margin. He leads in both assisted and unassisted tackles. He also has 4 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, an INT, a pass breakup and a forced fumble. Just a sophomore and mostly played special teams last season.

Of the 11 starters against UNC, 10 had started at least once prior to this season. Three of those are transfers. That experience is a big part of why this was a top 25 defense for much of the season. They are down to 44th now, giving up 550 yards to UNC is part of why they dropped.

Freeman excels in coverage. He also had 15 tackles in that NC State game.

Jordan Waters

In their win over Wake, Duke had 41 rushes against just 19 throws. And this was a game they trailed in the fourth quarter. This should be the case this week as well, because they don’t seem to trust Loftis and also because Virginia has shown that they don’t stop the run very well.

Waters rushed for 566 yards last year, at 4.6 yards per rush. Jaquez Moore, his backup, rushed for 6.4 yards per carry, but on far fewer carries. (Leonard actually led the team in rushing last year.) This year, Waters leads the team with 677 yards already, even with Moore and Leonard each getting their carries. Water is up to 5.6 yards per rush.

At 219 lbs, Waters is a bigger RB with very good straight line speed. But he’s not a guy who’s going to make guys miss and bounce to the edge. That’s Moore’s job.

Two Matchups

Virginia OL vs Duke Run Defense

Virginia’s success this year has generally come down to whether they can run the ball. In the two wins, Virginia rushed for an average of over 230 yards. In total, Virginia averages fewer than 120 yards rushing. So those two games were clearly outliers. And were also against the two worst rush defenses they played.

Running the ball means controlling the clock and keeping the defense fresh. Virginia won time of possession in close losses to Miami and Louisville, but lost by 9 minutes to the Yellow Jackets in the blowout. Against a bad Boston College team, Virginia rushed for just 59 yards and lost time of possession by almost 5 minutes.

Where they excel is in coverage. They are 11th in the country in pass yards allowed and 9th in pass efficiency defense. But just 74th in run defense. They are also 9th in red zone defense, which may be fluky.

Look for Virginia to run the ball a lot all game long. It is their best path to a win.

Virginia Secondary vs Duke Receivers

Jordan Moore has already been mentioned, and seems to have outstanding chemistry with Loftis. Jalon Calhoun is nearing 3000 yards receiving in his career, something that has only been done about 200 times in college football history. That is some real talent at WR. There isn’t much behind those two though.

We know the Wahoos are not going to generate much pressure on Loftis. Only one team in FBS has fewer sacks than the Wahoos. And yet Virginia is 64th in pass defense and 72nd in pass efficiency defense. The coverage has been pretty good. A few too many big passes hit, but they’ve allowed just 7 yards per attempt as a team, which is solid.

Duke’s passing game isn’t about big plays. Moore and Calhoun are both around 14 yards per catch. Loftis has just two completions which traveled 20 yards in the air.

This is pretty much the bread and butter of the passing offense. Quick, short passes. And Loftis almost never throws to his left. Just 5 of his 52 pass attempts have gone to the left. Shut down those passes and the front seven can focus on stopping the run.

One Prediction

This seems like a game Virginia can win. Although Virginia has looked better on the road this season, teams do generally improve at home. And clearly, Duke is not actually a top-25 team. And especially not without Leonard.

Thing is, Duke is pretty good at running the ball. And we’ve seen Virginia struggle to stop good running games. Georgia Tech comes to mind. Louisville rushed for almost 6 yards per carry. That number is inflated by the long TD run in the fourth quarter, but overall that felt like a decent effort against the run. Like several of Virginia’s other opponents, Louisville probably didn’t run the ball enough, considering how successfully they did it.

This game also feels like a look-ahead game, with Thanksgiving coming up and of course Virginia Tech after that. Keeping a 2-8 team focused isn’t easy.

Prediction: Duke 27, Virginia 21