PREVIEW: Duke (2-2) v. Virginia (1-3)

Fresh off what was, arguably, the program’s biggest victory to date, the Blue Devils return to Wallace Wade on Saturday to host Virginia.  

Duke (2-2; 0-1) v. Virginia (1-3; 0-0)

Date: Saturday, Oct. 1
Game Time: 12:30 pm
Venue: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, NC
Network: ACC Network

Summary:

The Blue Devils are riding high after beating Notre Dame in South Bend last week, and while that game may have solidified a lot of confidence in Durham, it also came at a heavy price.

Duke lost starting safety and kick return specialist DeVon Edwards for the season early in the first quarter and then, it was later revealed, Duke also lost top reserve linebacker Tinashe Bere as well.  Both to knee injuries.  TO make matters worse for Duke, the Blue Devils will also be without starting running back Jela Duncan thanks to a leg injury.

Such personnel losses could certainly conspire to stem any regained momentum head coach David Cutcliffe’s program may have seized against the Irish - something Duke simply cannot afford after squandering games against Wake Forest and Northwestern in Weeks Two and Three.

In each of those two defeats, and really dating back to the second half against North Carolina Central in the opener, the Blue Devil offense simply couldn’t find a rhythm and was rendered largely ineffective by the Deacons and Wildcats.  

Much like their hosts, the Cavaliers enter Saturday riding a wave of momentum generated by an upset of previously unbeaten Central Michigan.   Virginia had begun the season with three straight losses to Richmond, Oregon, and Connecticut, but rebounded in Week Four behind a big offensive performance from quarterback Kurt Benkert who passed for a a school record 421 yards and five touchdowns.  

What To Watch For:

Protecting The QB

A common theme for the Blue Devils in the two losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern was the stagnant offense.  Duke struggled for large portions of those games to find explosive plays and to take down field shots.  Much of that inefficiency began at the line of scrimmage where the Deacons and Wildcats were able to apply pressure to freshman starter Daniel Jones.  Fast forward to Week Four and Jones was getting the ball out to his receivers extremely fast.  Add in some much better protection from a seemingly transformed offensive line and the result was Jones leading Duke’s offense to a 500 yard day against the Irish on their home field.  The Cavaliers enter Saturday’s game ranked 119th in the country in pass defense, but do have some talent up front and at linebacker where the ACC’s top tackler, Micah Kiser resides.  While they won’t be the best pass rush Duke will see (or has seen) this season, Kiser and company should pose a challenge for the Blue Devils…but will it force Jones into the kinds of mistakes he made in the two losses?

Balancing The Offense

It wasn’t just Jones who had a redemptive day in South Bend.  The Duke running game, which rushed for less than 40 yards total against Wake Forest, was also much improved behind the two headed attack of Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson who combined for 187 yards on 34 carries.  Interestingly enough, the duo didn’t factor in at all in the receiving game (0 catches).  Duncan was particularly good, hitting the Irish for 5.8 yards per carry while breaking tackles and running hard between the tackles as Duke balanced the attack.  It seemed as though “The Stable” had finally figured things out and was ready to provide the kind of production that would allow a balanced offensive attack.  But a week later Duke is without Duncan (the third casualty of the team’s first game on turf), and so there are questions.  The biggest question appears to be who will be the next man up for Duke.  Obviously Wilson will get more work from the 13 carries a week ago, but he’s not the powerful inside runner that Duncan is.  The most likely player to get the call is Joseph Ajeigbe who has the powerful frame (5-foot-9, 215 pounds) to gash opponents on the inside, but has never rushed for more than 53 yards in a game.   If not Ajeigbe, Duke could turn to one of two true freshmen - either Brittain Brown or Elijah Deveaux.  Playing either would burn a redshirt, however.  

Pressuring Benkert

Duke leads the nation in sacks.  And so getting pressure on the opponent’s quarterback seems to be a given against the Cavaliers.  However, when things have gone bad this season it’s been because the Blue Devils have not been able to pressure opposing signal callers.  The result has been a series of explosive plays that have made up large percentages of total passing yards or, even worse, long scoring plays that have changed the game.  A season ago the Blue Devils struggled to get a consistent pass rush established against the Cavaliers, and Duke did allow nearly 400 yards passing a week ago.  That has to be a concern for Cutcliffe and company as Benkert can hurt you if given time, though he’s also going to be prone to sacks as he’s not particularly mobile when protection breaks down.  Still, Duke has to find a way to get to Benkert - and more consistently than they did against Wake Forest and Northwestern … despite the sack totals.  

Keeping A Lid On It

Part of Benkert’s big start to the season and, ultimately Virginia’s slow start, has been the struggles of the running game early on.  The Cavaliers do have two very solid backs in Albert Reid and Taquan Mizzell - and Mizzell hurt Duke in a big way last year with three touchdowns.  If Virginia can establish the ground game early - and this is where Duke really misses Bere - then it takes pressure off Benkert who has already shown the ability to beat teams through the air.  

Special Teams

After missing his first three field goals of the season, freshman kicker A.J. Reed was solid last week in South Bend when given a chance.  That last caveat is important because Duke drove twice into Notre Dame territory and well into field goal range during the game…neither time did the team opt for what should have been three easy points.  And neither time did the Blue Devils end up with a score.  While it didn’t bite them last week, at some point you cannot afford to leave points on the board in such a way.  And so it’ll be interesting and crucial to watch Reed’s progress and his team’s confidence in their kicker.

Prediction

After appearing dead in the water with regard to post season hopes after Week Three, Duke has risen from the ashes with a historic win over Notre Dame.  And for their next trick the Blue Devils will need to find a way to beat a capable opponent at home to solidify the momentum that was recaptured.  Duke will be favored against both Virginia (currently a four point favorite) and Army.  Wins in those two games would up the total to four.  And, this year, most likely five wins could get a bowl invite.  As noted, the Cavaliers can be dangerous if given the change (read if able to get an early lead and establish some confidence and rhythm) and Duke has had some notably slow starts this year.  And, of course, the Blue Devils are exploring and vetting areas of the depth chart that weren’t expected with the loss of three of the team’s top contributors last week.   We expect an entertaining game between two teams showing flashes, but neither being a finished product.  The pick…

Duke 31, Virginia 24

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