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Virginia Cavaliers vs. Duke Blue Devils: THE BIG PREVIEW

Georgia Tech v Duke Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Virginia Cavaliers Football returns home this week for a big game against the Duke Blue Devils. The Hoos haven’t played at home in nearly a month, with two road games and a bye week. It’s the first afternoon home game of the year and the first game without All American CB Bryce Hall.

The Hoos are now 4-2, after back to back losses to Notre Dame and Miami. Yes, the games have been disappointing. But these have been the two most difficult games on the schedule and it’s really not that surprising that they’re losses. In our preseason bowl watch, Matt Trogdon called those two games “Unfavorable” and “Longshot”. They haven’t won in a while, and haven’t played well in even longer (notwithstanding the first half against Notre Dame).

Duke is also 4-2, but with a much different perspective right now. They’re coming off a win and have actually won twice since Virginia last won a game. That includes their 45-10 blowout over the Hokies in Blacksburg. Also, their losses aren’t so bad. One was Alabama, so whatever. The other was at home against Pitt. Not a good loss, but they fell behind 26-3 due to a bunch of turnovers and fought back to take a late lead only to lose in the final minute.

Bronco Mendenhall has owned Duke during his Virginia tenure, with three straight wins. Last year was a two-touchdown road win, behind a big game from Bryce Perkins (three total TDs).

Virginia on Defense

This is the first time under Mendenhall that Virginia faces Duke not led by Daniel Jones. However, they have seen current Duke QB Quentin Harris a bit. He has 4 rushes for 12 yards in just a handful of snaps over the past two matchups.

Harris is a lot like Perkins. He’s a running QB, as opposed to a QB who can run. This year, Harris has completed 115 passes and rushed 83 times (including sacks). Perkins has completed 136 passes and rushed 84 times. Both have good arms and can make reads, but both are more dangerous using their legs to make plays than they are just dropping back to throw the ball.

In fact, Harris leads the team with 380 yards rushing (4.6 ypc). Junior RB Deon Jackson is second with 361 (3.9 ypc). Jackson led the team last year with 847 yards. Jackson has seemingly been losing snaps to sophomore Matteo Durant, a speedster who is more explosive than Jackson, but not as big or as consistent. Durant is also a very strong in the passing game:

This shows how dangerous he, even with just one shoe.

Durant isn’t, of course, the only weapon in the passing game. Probably the most dangerous is senior Aaron Young. Young has 49 career catches with 6 TDs. Among regulars in the receiving corp, his 12.7 yards per catch leads the team. The leading receiver is true freshman Jalon Calhoun, though a lot of his production came against NC A&T and MTSU. That said, he’s got nine catches in the past two games and also threw a TD pass against Virginia Tech. Calhoun was a high school QB and David Cutcliffe isn’t afraid to use his WRs on these types of plays. At least two non-QBs have thrown a pass for Duke each of the past three season.

Behind Harris, the Blue Devils are a run-based offense. On the season, they’ve rushed the ball 263 times and thrown just 186 passes. Some of that is due to blowout wins. They’ve really only played one close game (the loss to Pitt) and they threw 45 passes against 44 runs. However, they were down big in that game and had to fight back. For most teams, a game like that lean heavily to the pass. But not the Blue Devils. Even down 26-3, ten of Duke’s next 16 plays were runs.

Duke is 50th in run offense and 95th in pass offense. This seems like a good thing for the Hoos, who rank 11th nationally in run defense. A lot of that is sacks, with 163 yards lost on sacks. All told, they’ve allowed 2.7 yards per carry, but remove sacks and that goes up to 4.0 yards per carry. Still not bad, but not elite.

Virginia’s DL is going to be a key this week. Much of the season, we’ve seen a lot of the 2-4-5 nickel package, which has been very successful. Probably not going to see it much this week, and not just because of the loss of Bryce Hall. Against Duke’s run game, having the extra DL will be important. Especially since that extra DL is basically the NT, lining up in the middle of the OL. The strength of Duke’s OL, and by extension run game, is in the middle.

This is Harris on a zone-read. They’ll run this quite a bit and obviously Harris has the ability to turn it into something big.

The two OTs are both freshmen. This is something to watch in passing situations, as Virginia’s edge pass rushers Noah Taylor and Charles Snowden are arguably the two best players remaining on the defense. In early downs, we’re going to need a big performance from true freshman NT Jowon Briggs. Briggs has looked good in limited snaps so far, but this could be his breakout game.

They’ll need that, because stopping Duke from getting going in the run game is key. They do not want to rely on the pass. Harris 6.5 yards per attempt is poor and in line with Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and ODU’s Stone Smartt. We know what Virginia’s defense did to those two teams, and even without Hall they can do it to Duke as well.

Virginia on Offense

The Virginia defense is defining this season, but the offense is most important. With the defense largely shutting teams down, the offense has to do their part to put some points on the board. During the last two games, that did not happen. A combination of turnovers and poor execution has been a huge problem for the past three games.

However, that comes on the heels of some pretty good execution during the first three games. Virginia scored 30 points against Pitt’s 19th ranked defense. They scored 21 against FSU in the 4th quarter. They put up 52 against William and Mary (an FCS team for sure, but not a terrible one). They also scored 17 in the first half against Notre Dame.

This offense can be successful. They need to stop turning the ball over there needs to be more explosive plays. There have been just three runs of over 20 yards and just five passes over 30 yards. Without big plays, you need to execute well on so many more plays, and that is very difficult, especially against a good defense. One mistake can kill a drive. Big plays negate that. Simply put, Virginia needs to hit on some big plays.

Obviously, it all comes down to the offensive line. Over the past two games, they’ve allowed a shocking 13 sacks. A big problem has been pressure up the middle, giving Perkins nowhere to go. Duke’s pass rush mostly comes from the DEs. They average nearly three sacks per game (27th nationally). But just 3.5 of their 17 total sacks come from the DTs. They’ll bring pressure with the LBs, and not just in passing situations. They love to bring the LBs on run blitzes.

This is a 4th down last week against Georgia Tech. Koby Quansah, the leading tackler, comes on a run blitz and blows up the play. He made a similar play on a 4th down against Virginia Tech. Definitely something to watch on short yardage. If Duke is going to sell out for a run stop, play action or a bootleg run-pass-option seems like a strong option.

The Blue Devils play a 4-2-5 defense that is popular in college football today. The pass rush comes mostly from the DEs (though they will bring pressure), and the extra DB provides better pass coverage and more speed on the field.

Duke’s top five tacklers are the two LBs and three safeties. Those are all over the place and the defense is designed for them to make the plays. The DTs take up blocks on the inside, the DEs provide the pass rush (10.5 of the 17 sacks from four different DEs). The CBs play a lot of man defense (usually with safety help).

Against single coverage, there simply isn’t time for a safety to get to the sideline on a deep pass like this. It requires some time for the QB to throw. But Virginia’s WRs should have an advantage on the outside against a somewhat inexperienced pair of CBs.

Duke ranks 61st in pass defense and 64th in pass efficiency defense. But they are 113th in yards per completion. Remember that note about big plays? Just one single big pass play could change the outcome of the game. Knowing that, and knowing the issues Virginia is having running the football, don’t be surprised to see Perkins take some shots deep on the outside early in the game. Even if they don’t hit, it’ll keep the safeties a step further from the line of scrimmage, which maybe opens things up on the ground.

The Blue Devils are 48th in run defense. They’ve allowed 3.6 yards per rush, which is pretty good. But remove sacks, and they’ve allowed 4.5 yards per rush. That’s not so good. And it’s not like that’s because of the Bama game, as the Tide rushed for just 3.5 yards per carry.

A key weakness of the Duke defense is RBs on pass routes out of the backfield. With the LBs in the backfield so much and the Ss often near the line of scrimmage, there’s a lot of options for RBs to get open.

This was the game winning TD for Pitt. Duke brings seven pass rushers on this play, and there’s nobody on V’Lique Carter. There’s a reason why you don’t see a lot of seven man blitzes.

This one is just a four man pass rush, but nobody picks up the Yellow Jacket RB on the wheel. We haven’t seen much from the RBs in the passing game. We’ve seen Joe Reed in the backfield running pass routes, but Reed isn’t like to be ignored back there. And Lamont Atkins usually comes in for passing downs. But there may be an opportunity to get Wayne Taulapapa open in running situations.

Duke’s 44th ranked defense is actually one spot above Notre Dame. But their strength of schedule is far below the Irish. Yes, they’re a solid defense. But they are far below Notre Dame or Miami, both in terms of overall quality and individual talent. This is an opportunity for the Virginia offense to get back on track.


Obviously, fans are disappointed after back-to-back losses. Especially since both came in games the Hoos could’ve won. The offense has not performed up to anybody’s expectations. But, again, these were tough road games and Virginia is still a fairly young team.

Returning back home might be just what the doctor ordered. Other than the first half against ODU, Virginia has played very well at home this year. The OL has been better and therefore the run game has been better and therefore the offense has been better. I think we’re going to see a different Virginia team back home playing in front of the home crowd.

Prediction: Virginia 27, Duke 17 (season record, 6-0)