As they head to Wallace Wade the Cavaliers are hoping to get their offensive production up to respectable levels after combining for just 23 points in the first three contests against Southern California, Richmond, and Connecticut. History will certainly be on the Wahoos' side with UVa rolling up 30 or more points in 15 of the previous 25 meetings between the teams en-route to a scoring advantage of 580-204 in the series' last 18 games.
Of course this season may be a horse of a different color given the Cavliers' youth movement and roster turnover. Currently Virginia has 72 players on the active roster who are either freshmen or sophomores - making them the second youngest team in the conference. Sophomore signal caller Marc Verica is the likely starter for Virginia, but backup Scott Deke is likely to also take some snaps. The team began the season with senior Peter Lalich under center, but recent legal troubles resulted in his dismissal from the program.
In his first career start against Connecticut, Verica was solid - completing 22-of-30 passes for 158 yards and just one interception. Seven of those completions went to Kevin Olgetree, who has been the program's top receiver throughout the season and who has at least two catches per game dating back to the 2006 season. The secondary passing option is tight end John Phillips who has 11 catches for 89 yards in the three contests this season. The incorporation of the tight end position into the passing game has been a hallmark of head coach Al Groh's scheme for many years. Since 2001 no team has utilized their TEs more than Virginia, which has completed 420 passes for 4,745 yards and 37 scores in that time period.
The team's passing success is based largely on the offensive line which features one of the 2009 NFL Draft's top prospects in senior tackle and former No.1 OL and five star prospect Eugene Monroe who is a finalist for the Lombardi and Outland trophies which honor the nation's top lineman. Monroe did not allow a sack from his side in 11 games as a starter a season ago. Monroe certainly caught the eye of USC's Pete Carroll who said "He's awesome. He's a number one pick [in the NFL Draft] all the way - he's exactly what teams are looking for as a pass protecting left tackle."
On the ground the Cavliers will hope to get more out of running backs Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson who combined for just 27 yards on eight carries against Connecticut. It's a stark contrast to last year's game against the Blue Devils where Peerman ran through and over the Duke defense to the tune of 137 yards and a score. It was one of Peerman's best games of the season before an injury robbed him of the final six games of 2007, which allowed Simpson to fill-in. Both backs have struggled to run the ball this season, accounting for just 173 yards on a combined 55 carries (2.78 yards per carry).
Virginia on Defense:
Running a 3-4 defense is one thing. But running a 3-4 defense with two redshirt freshmen along the defensive line puts tremendous pressure on the linebackers. A season ago it worked fine for the nine win Cavaliers as they allowed just 2.9 yards per rush. This season, however, the Virginia defense hasn't been as effective - surrendering a combined 590 yards on 93 carries (6.34 yards per carry) to Connecticut and USC. Against Bowl Subdivision opponent Richmond the Cavaliers held the Spiders to 19 yards on 27 carries.
One of those red-shirt freshmen, DE Nick Conrath, has recorded a team best five tackles for loss (with two sacks) this season - good enough to rank second in the ACC and 16th in the country in the TFL category. Backing up the defensive line is a talented group of linebackers led by inside linebacker John Copper who enters the Duke game leading the team in stops in 2008 which is a continuation of last year's 109 tackle effort in which he made at least seven stops in each game. Joining Copper will be Clint Sintim, the national leader in sacks by a linebacker (17 career sacks) who has been named to the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (nation's best defensive player).
Much like the defensive front hasn't been able to stifle their Bowl Championship Division opponents' running attack, the defensive backfield hasn't been able to stop the passing game - though they have done a fair job of limiting their opponents after the catch. Against USC the Cavaliers allowed the Trojans to complete 28-of-38 passes while surrendering four touchdowns and picking off just one pass. Against Connecticut the Cavliers did a much better job limiting the yards after the catch, but were unable to bother the Husky passing attack as UConn completed 13-of-15 passes for 124 yards and one touchdown. The big play threat in the defensive backfield is former four star prospect Vic Hall who recorded a 60 yard score against Richmond after picking off a pass. Currently Hall ranks 5th on the team in tackles and moonlights as a punt returner where he's averaged 10.0 yards per return a season ago.
For Duke To Win:
The Cavaliers are probably the second toughest team the Blue Devils have played this season behind Northwestern. In order for the Blue Devils to move to 3-1 and 1-0 in the ACC it will be paramount for Thaddeus Lewis to continue his string of strong play and taking care of the football. It's been well over 200 pass attempts since an opponent recorded an interception against Lewis and the Cavaliers have struggled to break up pass attempts this season. Where Duke will need to improve is eating up yards after the catch. Coach Cutcliffe was none-too-pleased with that area after the first three games. The Blue Devils will also need a big game on the ground against Virginia. Given the inexperience of the UVa D-line, Duke should be able to move the ball on the ground with some frequency - which will prove useful given the forecast of rain showers during the game.
Defensively the Blue Devils will need to utilize Cutcliffe's aggressive blitzing scheme to put pressure on the inexperienced, albeit capable, Virginia quarterback - Marc Verica. To get there you'll see the Duke defensive ends facing off against an NFL Top Pick caliber opponent in Monroe - making the task anything but easy. If Duke can't get the kind of pressure they'd like on Monroe, then they can offset that failure by keeping the Cavalier receivers in front of them and by making sure to pay attention the Virginia TEs who will no doubt play a big role in Groh's offensive scheme.
Look for the Blue Devils to get their 'sea legs' under them as the ACC season dawns. A 13-7 halftime score either way before Duke settles down and takes control in the third quarter. A late Virginia rally will come up just short and Duke will prevail 23-16.