You would think that the pressure is now off this UVa team heading into this weeks matchup, but it only gets exponentially harder. Make a bowl game is one thing, but going to a more respectable bowl is completely doable. And to throw some more propane on the fire, if the outcome of the Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech game goes in favor of the Jackets, a win against Duke would make the annual ‘rivalry’ game with VT a Coastal Divisional Championship game, regardless of the outcome of the FSU game.
But before we can start dreaming too big, we have to first play Duke. And when you are still concerned about a 3-6 team you are playing at home, you have to remain grounded. Yes it is Duke, but they have owned Virginia the last 3 years. There hasn’t been a stretch like that since the early 90s when Duke was good nationally. Yeah, it actually happened.
Like we said, Duke is 3-6, 1-4 in the ACC. Their wins have come against Boston College, Tulane, and FIU, two of those coming on the road. The Blue Devils have lost to FCS Richmond, Stanford, FSU, Wake, VT, and Miami, which is a very good slate of teams, outside of the Spiders. Duke is surprisingly 2-3 in games decided by 4 points or less, but have found ways to either let teams back in games or let teams squeak by. So what do we expect from the team from Durham this weekend? Let’s get to the preview.
David Cutcliffe is entering his 4th season with Duke trying to turn around a program that has been down, more or less, for the last 15 years. He is most well known as being the head assistant of Tennessee when Peyton Manning was there and then the head coach of Ole Miss when Eli was at the helm. But the transition has not been very smooth overall. He is 12-24 at Duke and 5-19 in the ACC, but he has never lost to UVa in his professional career, going 4-0, with 3 wins at Duke and 1 at Tennessee when the Hoos and Vols met in the Sugar Bowl. He is a ‘quarterbacks’ coach and his team has always been highlighted by high flying passing offenses, which segways into the next section.
It is not hard to figure out how Duke is going to move the ball. If UVa is run, run, then run some more, the Blue Devils are pass, pass, then pass even more. They run probably the truest Spread Offense we will see or have seen all year, with 3 wide receivers, a tight end, and a running back. But while they have passed well this season they have thrown even more interceptions. The quarterback situation is manned very similar to that of the Hoos right now. Sean Renfree is the man at the helm and has 2,185 yards passing, 6 TDs, and 8 INTs. They do play another QB by the name of Anthony Boone who only has 187 yards passing, but has rushed for 85 yards and 4 touchdowns. This will be something the Hoos will have to make adjustments to depending on who is under center.
Now while they love to pass the ball for yardage, the running backs have accounted for 17 of the 23 offensive touchdowns this season. Juwan Thompson is their leading rusher with 398 yards and 5 TDs, followed by fellow RBs Desmond Scott (319, 2 TD) and Jay Hollingsworth (108, 1 TD). They will use the backs mostly in a draw situation when Renfree is in, or an option-read look when Boone is in. Teams not recognizing the play up front give up very long runs and can bail out Duke in 3rd and long situations.
All the receivers have a ton of yards, which is why they rank 27th in the nation in passing at almost 270 yards per game. WRs Conner Vernon (783, 4 TDs), Donovan Varner (497), and Brandon Braxton (226) are the big yard gainers, with TE Cooper Helfet used in the passing game as well with 303 yards and 2 TDs. The spread offense is what it is and will depend on getting pressure on the QB from the front four and letting the Hoos sit in zone with at least 6 players.
We have seen this 4-2-5 before with Southern Miss, but it is safe to say the Golden Eagles run it a little better than Duke. It works very well against teams that like to throw the ball, but not so much against the run. In the Blue Devil’s case, they have allowed around 30 points a game, and teams like Stanford, FSU, and even VT ran over them and were able to control the flow of the game. Like Maryland, they are very young, only sporting 2 starting seniors and 4 on the two deep. The big playmakers are S Matt Daniels, S Walt Canty, and LB Kelby Brown, which shows that teams are able to get to the second level much of the game. They do not have many INTs on the season, but Daniels has 2 on the year to lead Duke, and both came against Virginia Tech. If they are going to be successful on this side of the ball, they will have to dial up some secondary blitzes off the corners, but the Hoos have shown that they can find the man on the slant rout so that will be another battle to watch.
If there is one Achilles’ Heel of this team, it is this unit. Will Snyderwine is 7/14 on the year for field goals, with his long being 40 yards, but has missed 4 under 38. Alex King is a better than average punter with 42.2 yards per punt, and they have had some success in the return game. But the inconsistency of the kicking game has lost them at least 3 games this season, which could come into play this week as well.
How Virginia Wins
This game will be won or lost in the Duke WR vs. Virginia DB game. The Hoos must be able to slow down this offense and force some short possessions. Virginia should be able to run the ball against this front 6, and it really demoralizes a team when they have a short offensive set and are sitting on the sidelines for an extended period of time. Duke holds a +5 minute TOP on the season, and if that gets flipped towards UVa, the Hoos can walk in this game. Lastly, the turnover battle must be won by the Cavs. Duke won’t commit many penalties in the game, but they are -8 in the turnover margin for the year and should give the Hoos some shots for short fields during the game.
How Virginia Loses
We all know Duke will pass the ball, but if the Hoos don’t recognize when they like to option or draw run the ball, they will let the Blue Devils gain more rushing yards and first downs than they should. Secondly Duke has the ability to score any quarter of the game, but if the Hoos can’t find a way to either put them away early or score with them in the second half, Duke can slowly pull away from this game. Lastly, if the Hoos try to sit back in a Zone/Cover 2 and can’t get to the QB, especially an very non mobile Renfree, he will pick the secondary apart.
This team is not the ideal opponent the Hoos would really like to see at this point in the year. The Hoos do very well against balanced teams or even better rushing teams, but have not had the best success against the Spread teams like NC State or USM. The one X-factor I have seen from Duke is that they are very self defeating, and find the worse times to try and do something stupid. But it will be capitalizing off those mistakes that will be key. I want to say the Hoos will win this one with ease, but the little guy in the back of my head still has his reservations, so we will curb our pick a little and hope for a good game back in C’Ville. Virginia 31, Duke 24.