When Duke has the ball:
Duke used the bye week to get healthy. Key offensive cogs like RB Justin Boyle and QB Thaddeus Lewis should be fully recovered from injuries and ready to go on Saturday. Duke might not be at full strength though. Devilback Ronnie Drummer is 50/50 to play, and the status of LT Cam Goldberg is still not known. Goldberg suffered an injury late in the Virginia Tech game and did not return. He was able to leave the field under his own power and with two weeks to rest his return is likely.
Duke will try and expose the porous Virginia pass defense. The Cavaliers are last in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and this week will face one of the few QBs in the country that has yet to throw an interception this season in Thad Lewis. Backup QB Marcus Jones will likely see his first significant action at receiver this weekend, and will bolster what has turned out to be quite a fine receiving corps. One of the keys to the Duke offense will be how they compliment the air attack. UVA is giving up 129 yards per game on the ground against a relatively soft schedule.
On defense, Virginia will most likely try and confuse the youthful Duke offensive line mixing blitzes and stunts in with their pass rush. The good news for Duke is the Cavaliers have suffered a big talent drain in their front seven over the past few seasons. Now the Cavalier front is simply a shell of what it once was. Still, they have been able to record nine QB sacks on the season. With Duke giving up over four sacks per contest, there is no doubt UVA will try and significantly increase that total. The Cavaliers employ a base 3-4 defense, so expect to see lots of zone-blitzing to confuse the Blue Devils offensive line. Teams are paying attention to standout DE Chris Long. That has freed up redshirt freshman Jeremy Fitzgerald to lead the team in sacks and tackles for loss. Linebackers Jon Copper and Clint Sintim are pacing the team in tackles.
When Virginia has the ball:
With most of the recognizable names gone from the offense, the Cavaliers are really struggled to consistently move the ball this season. The three-headed monster at QB, Chris Olsen, Jameel Sewell, and Kevin McCabe have completed 57% of their passes, but have thrown 7 interceptions. McCabe seems to be the most accurate passer of the group, but has also thrown the most interceptions. This weekend, Sewell will get the starting nod despite struggling with his throwing mechanics. He is by far the best athlete of the group and should provide the Cavalier offense with a running threat from the pocket. UVA does not have any dynamic playmakers at running back or receiver. Unlike the Virginia Tech game, Duke will not be out-talented by their skill athletes.
Defensively, Duke will be facing a different sort of offense this week than they have in their earlier contests. Against Wake and VT, Duke loaded up against the run since both offenses are run-first. Duke will probably do more of the same this week, despite facing the ACC's worst rushing attack With a new starting QB that has struggled with throwing mechanics, Duke will most likely take their chances with Sewell throwing from the pocket. The linebackers and safeties will need to be cognizant of Sewell's running ability and react quickly should he scramble. The Devils must also find a way to give Deonto McCormick safety help in pass coverage. Teams have been staying away from John Talley and McCormick has not been able to respond well to teams attacking his side of the field.
Duke QB Thaddeus Lewis vs. UVA pass defense
Lewis should be fully recovered from the concussion he sustained against Virginia Tech two weeks ago. He will get a different sort of challenge this week against Virginia's 3-4 defense. The Cavaliers will try and confuse the young passer by disguising their coverages and zone-blitzing. Lewis needs to make sure he watches film this week. The zone blitz is design to get quick pressure on a QB by confusing the offensive line while dropping a defender into the "hot read" areas where the QB throws the ball during a blitz. It is an effective scheme provided you get quick pressure on the QB. Lewis will see men in his face at times on Saturday. His ability to read the defense quickly and deliver the ball to the correct receiver will dictate the success of the Duke offense.
Three keys to the game:
Red Zone Execution: To say Duke is struggling in the red-zone is a gross understatement. Through three games, Duke has been in the red-zone 9 times and has recorded a pitiful three points yielding an 11% success rate. This number is easily the worst in the ACC and probably college football. By comparison, the next-worst team in the conference is NC State with a 71% success rate. If you are looking for a reason Duke has only scored 13 points on the season, this is it. The good news for the Duke faithful is this number HAS to get better. Even in the winless 2000 and 2001 season, Duke scored nearly 70% of the time in the red-zone. With Lewis at the helm and Boyle in the backfield, Duke will bring this number up quickly.
The Kicking Game: Another reason for Duke's low point total this season is the struggles of the kicking game. Joe Surgan is having some mechanical and confidence issues, and as a result is only 2-6 in field goal tries. This also manifests itself in kickoffs, where the ball is routinely going out of bounds. He has the ability to be an outstanding college kicker, now he needs the confidence.
Scoring First: It is imperative for Duke to start the game off on the right foot. Scoring first would give the whole team a real boost of confidence at a time that confidence is in short supply. Whether it happens with a big play, a long drive, or a defensive score, Duke must find a way to get on the board early. The Devils are not the only team playing Saturday that is lacking belief in themselves. Virginia has dropped two games in a row, and if Duke is able to get off to a quick start, the Cavaliers might self-destruct.
Both teams desperately need a victory Saturday. For Duke, this game takes on added importance. After Virginia, the Devils play a murders row of teams in Alabama, Florida State and Miami in their next 3 contests. They will most likely not win any of those games, so a victory against Virginia would take the pressure of a winless season off their shoulders for when the schedule softens later in the season. Virginia has been routed by two pretty good teams in Pitt and Georgia Tech and split against two weak teams in Western Michigan and Wyoming. They need to beat the 0-3 Devils to get their ship headed in the right direction for the meatier part of their ACC schedule.
This game is going to boil down to which offense can move the ball better. Both teams are struggling mightily running the ball. In Virginia's case, they are not much better when putting the ball in the air. Duke has fared much better passing, but has not been able to score points when in the red-zone. Still, these are the two worst offensive teams in the ACC at this point so do not expect this game to be a shootout. The Devils will find a rhythm with their passing game and Justin Boyle will give them enough on the ground to keep the Cavaliers off-balance. On the other side of the ball, Jameel Sewell will test the Blue Devil defense with his legs and will probably have a good game throwing the ball. This game will be tight throughout, but the Devil will make one more play than the Cavaliers and notch their first victory of the season.
Predicted Final Score:
Duke – 21
UVA - 20