So that’s what it looks like when the plan comes together? The Virginia football team snared the first win of the Bronco Mendenhall era last week against Central Michigan with some explosive plays, timely stops, and a little resilience. With the Hoos finally in the win column, another old question rises to the top for the picks this week.
Can Virginia win on the road? The Cavaliers have lost 17 straight games on the road, which dates back to November 2012. They haven’t won at Duke, this week’s opponent, since 2006.
Mendenhall said he isn’t really interested in all of that prologue, though.
“I’ll be pretty blunt and transparent with you. I didn’t know how long – I just had to ask … walking down the hall, how long it’s been, and that doesn’t really matter to me,” Mendenhall said. “I know what exact preparation looks like and I know what confidence looks like. … Right now we play Duke and I know exactly kind of where our team has to improve and grow and where our focus needs to be and the more I focus on things which can’t be controlled, which are all these other games, what good would it do for me to do that? So I’m looking forward on what we can do, not what hasn’t been done.”
Beyond the road question, there is some mystery around the Blue Devils too. They just won at Notre Dame, but lost to Wake Forest and Northwestern in the two weeks prior to that. They scored 38 points in the victory, but had just 27 combined points in the two previous losses.
Throw in some injury news too to further complicate the picture. Duke lost captain and leading tackler DeVon Edwards for the season during the victory at Notre Dame. Leading rusher Jela Duncan is listed as out for the UVA game too. That news came on top of the fact that Duke already lost its projected starter at quarterback Thomas Sirk for the year in preseason practice. Redshirt Daniel Jones now owns the starting role and he helped deliver against the Irish with 290 passing yards and 3 touchdowns.
What does everything in that recipe mean for the Hoos’ trip to Durham? Let’s see what the picks say.
Virginia can win if … the playmakers show up big again. Anyone waiting for the offense evident in the BYU scoring stats of previous years to show up, left the stadium pleased Saturday. The Hoos threw up 49 points and 569 yards of offense. How? They let the playmakers lead the way. Kurt Benkert attempted 43 passes and set a school record with 421 yards. Taquan Mizzell got 16 combined touches, the majority of them in space. Olamide Zaccheaus caught 8 passes and got a chance to go long. Doni Dowling and Keeon Johnson were regular targets and combined for 9 catches. Albert Reid got 14 combined touches. It was a case of the key pieces on offense getting almost all of the playmaking chances and it worked.
Virginia can lose if … it can’t protect the quarterback. As good as all of that sounds, Central Michigan didn’t threaten the pocket much and that appeared to help UVA find its offensive firepower. Duke is a different case. The Blue Devils enter the game with 17 sacks, good enough for a first-place tie nationally. They also have 21 quarterback hurries, 14 pass breakups, and 5 interceptions. This defense looks like one that could challenge the wider splits on UVA’s offensive line and disrupt Kurt Benkert’s timing. If the team that allowed 6 sacks at Oregon shows up, that could spell big trouble.
And the winner is …
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: So was that a breakthrough or a radar blip? Virginia looked like a team capable of making some noise in ACC play for most of the day against previously undefeated Central Michigan. Still, the defense has some holes – particularly with pass defense – and the turnover bug is still hanging out in the neighborhood. The same question could be asked of Duke, though. Was the win at Notre Dame a breakthrough or an exception for this year’s team? The Blue Devils have some injury questions too. The Hoos have the road thing. Tough one to pick. I never thought this team was going 0-12 and I don’t think 1-11 is in the cards either. I’ll take Virginia. VIRGINIA 31, DUKE 24. Season to date: 2-2.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: This UVA team is gaining confidence week by week. However, as Bronco Mendenhall is quick to note, there is still a small margin for error for success. You can feel the confidence growing week to week, but is the team ready to get its first road win in 17 tries? I think the answer is yes, but this game is a tough one to call. Duke’s defense, tied for first in the FBS in sacks, can bring the pressure. How will Kurt Benkert respond? I think he’ll do well, and with Duke star safety DeVon Edwards lost for the season, I think Virginia will have success on offense. In a shootout I think Virginia takes down Duke. VIRGINIA 42, DUKE 38. Season to date: 2-2.
Sabre analyst Greg Waters: This pick might be in a little bit easier if I had any idea which Duke team is showing up Saturday. The Blue Devils have been consistently inconsistent. Duke has the ability to attack with big plays. The key is to limit the Blue Devils’ passing success on first down. Duke averages 9.5 yards per play passing on first down but on 3rd-and-7+ yards to go, the Devils are converting just 21% of their chances. Putting the offense in tough situations is important. The Blue Devils have been leaky on defense at times, giving up 701 yards through the air the last two weeks and an average of 9.5 yards per pass the last three weeks. The Cavalier passing game is hot and I think UVA can put together an approach to keep Duke the defense off-balance. VIRGINIA 34, DUKE 24. Season to date: 1-3.
Sabre analyst Ahmad Hawkins: Virginia will look to build on its offensive performance vs. Central Michigan. The Hoos will need to protect QB Kurt Benkert from the Duke defensive line, which has 17 sacks on the season. However, it will up to the defense to withstand the early offensive barrage that Duke has displayed this season. Duke has scored 114 points this season, with 91 of those points taking place in the first half. If the defense can demonstrate the ability to adjust and the pass rush can get home, I feel the Wahoos can spoil Duke’s homecoming game with a much-needed road victory. VIRGINIA 28, DUKE 24. Season to date: 0-4.
Sabre meteorologist BadgerHoo: Warm and on the humid side and with not much breeze – feeling more like early September than early October. Another tough road loss. DUKE 31, VIRGINIA 21. Season to date: 2-2.
What about you? Who wins?