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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Duke Blue Devils

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We’re going to do it! We’re going to make it to Saturday!

Capital One Orange Bowl - Florida v Virginia Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

It’s pretty strange to be playing your first game of the season against an opponent with two games already under their belt. One game is not surprising, but two? I can’t find a single instance of this happening before. But as the Virginia Cavaliers look to take on the 0-2 Duke Blue Devils on Saturday, this is where we stand.

There is some advantage for the Hoos as well. They have two games’ worth of film on Duke. They can find tendencies. They can determine strengths and weaknesses. Duke will be playing a guessing game on much of that, and this will actually be the third game in a row that Duke will have to play the guessing game—each of Notre Dame and Boston College were season openers for the opposing team.

Make no mistake that Coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff would prefer to have played real games. As he said in his press conference on Monday, “playing games is the only real feedback to build off”. This is especially true when breaking in a new quarterback.

The Hoos are at home, which may not matter since the stands will be mostly empty.

When: Saturday, September 26 at 4:00PM Eastern
Where: Scott Stadium
TV: ACC Network

Let’s take a look at matchups. We’ll start with the defense, which figures to be the stronger unit early in the season.

Virginia on Defense

Calling the defense the stronger unit is not meant as a knock on the offense. This defense has a chance to be special, returning nine starters from the Orange Bowl while the offense must replace a record-setting QB, its top two receivers and three of the top five rushers.

Here are some more numbers from this year’s defense:

  • Virginia has 12 players returning who started at least three games last year.
  • Virginia has nine players returning who started at least three games in 2018.
  • Virginia has four players returning who started at least one game in 2017.
  • All 11 starters on the depth chart started at least two games last year. They average over nine starts each last year alone. They’ve started a total of 184 career games.

Oh, and that does not include JMU transfers Adeeb Atariwa and D’Angelo Amos. Atariwa started 15 times last year and 23 times in his career. Amos started 15 times last year and 28 times in his career.

Those are pretty insane numbers. Last season’s defense ranked 48th nationally, which is after all the injuries in the secondary—at the end of September, the Wahoo defense ranked 15th, and at the end of October, they ranked 11th. That’s about when all the injuries began to build up—Bryce Hall, Rob Snyder, Brenton Nelson, Chris Moore, and finally Jordan Mack. That’s a lot to overcome, and you’ll notice three of those five are in the secondary. Not surprisingly, the secondary became a weakness.

They’re facing a Duke offense that has struggled in both games so far. They’ve scored just 19 points in two games, and are averaging just 344 total yards (which is actually a bit better than last year’s average of 329), though to be fair, the first game was against top-ten Notre Dame. QB Chase Brice has completed just 54% of his passes, and is averaging just 6 yards per attempt. The ground game hasn’t been much better, averaging under 4 yards per carry.

Brice is a graduate transfer from Clemson. He got to Clemson with a lot of acclaim and was almost immediately recruited over when Trevor Lawrence showed up in 2018. Kelly Bryant actually began the 2018 season as the starter with Brice as the presumptive backup. But Lawrence quickly took the reins and never let go. Brice stayed on as the backup and was instrumental in their 2018 championship season, leading a come-from-behind win over Syracuse with Lawrence on the sidelines.

Brice does a really good job of avoiding the pressure. But this is not a good throw and it takes a tremendous effort by Hunter Renfrow to be a completed pass. Accuracy seems to be Brice’s issue.

This pass is way behind the intended target. He clearly does not see the LB in the short zone, but if the pass leads the WR as intended, maybe it gets through.

This is a throw Brice completed several times in that Syracuse game and we’ve already seen several times for the Blue Devils. It’s a pretty easy pitch and catch if the WR can get a free release off the line. Often, when the Hoos are bringing pressure, they play the DBs off the line. That could make them susceptible to these plays. The counter to that is showing blitz and dropping a LB into coverage where that pass is intended.

The Duke running game is led by senior Deon Jackson, who is on a lot of NFL radars. At 6’0” 220, he has good size and speed. And he’s caught more than 20 passes each of the past two years, showing off receiving skills that are a necessity in the NFL these days. For his career, Jackson has over 2000 yards of total offense. He’s even attempted two passes, completing one.

Through two games this year, Jackson has rushed 30 times for 126 yards. He also has three receptions for 1 yard.

However, in three previous games against the Hoos, Jackson has 26 rushes for 57 yards (2.2 ypc), with one reception for 13 yards. Not great numbers. Jackson’s struggles against Virginia basically mimic the entire offense, a big part of why Bronco Mendenhall is 4-0 against the Blue Devils. Through the four games, Duke has averaged just 313 yards per game. Over that time period, Duke has averaged 378 yards per game in all contests.

The experience at RB is not duplicated at WR. Although top receiver Jalon Calhoun returns, he was not particularly effective as a freshman last year, with 420 receiving yards at just 9 yards per catch. Calhoun is second on the team in receptions so far this year, but the top receiving target is actually TE Noah Gray (clip below). The team’s most experienced WR is junior Damond Philyaw-Johnson, who is best known as a (very good) return specialist. Other names to watch are 6’3” Eli Pancol and 6’5” Jake Bobo, who present matchup problems with their size against Virginia’s secondary.

This is a dangerous throw, but Brice trusts Gray to go up and get it. Gray had 51 catches last year.

Duke’s OL is not particularly experienced either. Only LT Casey Holman returns to his position from last year. RG Jacob Monk started every game last year on the outside, but has moved inside this year. Both Monk and Holman are sophomores. Impressive that they were starting as freshmen, but they’re still young. RT Devery Hamilton is a graduate transfer from Stanford, where he was a starter last year prior to an ankle injury which knocked him out for the season after just four games.

Duke’s base offense is three WRs, so we will absolutely see a lot of nickel from the Hoos. But the key to shutting down this Duke team is stopping Deon Jackson, especially early on. Forcing Brice to drop back and throw allows Virginia to unleash what should be a devastating pass rush. So while we got used to the 2-4-5 a lot of last year, we might see a more traditional 3-3-5 defense, which adds more size and helps control the middle of the field.

Virginia on Offense

Duke’s defense can almost match the Hoos in experience. Duke has 170 career starts from their starting eleven. The Blue Devils have 11 players on the two deep with at least two years of experience on the field and five with three years of experience.

That 2-deep includes a pair of very strong pass rushers who will be playing on Sundays soon. That’s Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje. That duo combined for 15 sacks last year and has 4.5 already through two games this year. Rumph, a junior, is actually listed as “OR” with senior Drew Jordan. Jordan might be a better all around DE, but Rumph is a gifted pass rusher.

Through two games, Duke has nine sacks. Obviously it’s early and many teams haven’t played yet, but that’s fourth in the nation (one behind a trio of teams at 10, including both Clemson and Pitt). Duke’s strength of schedule is much higher right now than either Clemson or Duke—this is a very good, and very potent pass rush.

From last year’s game, this is a simple four man rush with Rumph running a stunt from inside to outside. Dimukeje gets pressure inside, but Rumph coming from the outside prevents Perkins from getting outside the pocket. That leads him right back into Dimukeje for the sack.

This is just a few plays later. This is another four man rush, and Dimukeje simply beats RT Dillon Reinkensmeyer around the edge. The Virginia OL will need to be better to avoid putting Brennan Armstrong into bad positions.

That aggressive pass rush can make them susceptible to the running game. Notre Dame ran for 178 yards and two TDs, while BC ran for just 84 yards but also scored a TD on the ground. Both of those numbers include sacks. Duke sacked BC’s Phil Jurkovec six times for 35 yards lost. He did have couple of big runs. And he isn’t as mobile as Armstrong is.

This is similar from something we’ve seen from Armstrong.

This is a designed run (or at least is based on a read from Armstrong), whereas Jurkovec’s run is more of a scramble. But the point is if Duke brings pressure and doesn’t get there, there’s going to be room for Armstrong to run.

The aggressive pass rush also opens up the possibility of screen passes. BC had some success with screens.

Duke has four defenders chasing Jurkovec behind the play. This is a fairly traditional screen, which we saw a glimpse of from Virginia’s training camp.

Virginia fans are more used to seeing WR screens than RB screens from the Hoos. That could be a way to get the ball into Keytaon Thompson’s hands in space.

Virginia abused that defensive aggression with some misdirection last year. Here’s an example.

Duke bites hard on the fake handoff and nobody pays any attention to TE Tanner Cowley, who also does a great job selling that he’s there to block on the backside of the play.

By the way, fans complain about Robert Anae and his playcalling, but this is a beautifully drawn up play and called at an opportune moment.

Here’s another example.

Look at how far Duke’s front six moves to their right before having to change direction to come back left. This play also highlights Billy Kemp IV and Tavares Kelly, a couple of WRs who should feature heavily in this game.

Duke has allowed 563 passing yards in two games. And that was with a pair of experienced CBs in Mark Gilbert and Josh Blackwell. Both of those guys are now out indefinitely due to injury. Gilbert was All-ACC in 2017 and then missed all of last season and most of 2018 to a hip injury. You feel a little for the guy, having worked so hard to come back and then to be out again.

Replacing those two will be Leonard Johnson and Jeremiah Lewis. Johnson started every game last year with Gilbert out and tied for the team lead with two INTs. Lewis, on the other hand, has played only sparingly. Look for Anae and Marques Hagans to scheme ways to get Terrell Jana, Virginia’s top WR, matched up on Lewis.

This is also from last year’s game. It’s actually good coverage by Johnson, but Dubois is too big and makes a tremendous catch on the sidelines. With the arm strength we’ve seen from Armstrong, this deep sideline pass is something we should see. At 6’3”, St Francis transfer Ra’Shaun Henry is an option on those plays. There’s also 6’7” freshman Lavel Davis, who presents a big mismatch against most CBs.

At full strength, this is a solid defense. They’ve allowed 412 yards per game so far, which isn’t bad considering the offense hasn’t done much. Last year’s unit ranked 56th defensively, averaging just under 380 yards per game. That’s solidly in the top half of the nation, which again is pretty good considering how bad the offense was.

Conclusion

The advantage Duke has from having played two games can’t be understated. It’s a huge benefit to the coaching staff and the younger players. You can’t mimic game speed and game situations in practice and scrimmages. Brennan Armstrong hasn’t taken a real hit yet, and we don’t know how he’ll react to that until it happens.

But, there’s a talent gap between these two teams right now. Duke has an advantage at RB (Deon Jackson) and TE (Noah Gray). And while Victor Dimukeje is better than any Virginia DE, is he better than Charles Snowden or Noah Taylor (it’s unfair to compare DEs between the Hoos’ 3-4 defense and the Blue Devils’ 4-2-5 defense)? Chase Brice might have an advantage over Armstrong because of the two games under his belt, but Armstrong has the advantage of three years with the same coaching staff while Brice is in his first year at Duke.

At almost every other position on the field, Virginia has the edge. There will be some growing pains early on, as Virginia’s guys get used to game speed and get comfortable actually being back on the field for a game. Considering all the distractions, between social unrest and CoVID-19, getting to play an actual football game may be a nice break from reality.

Prediction: Virginia 24, Duke 10