Virginia Football Game Preview: Duke

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The Virginia football program’s 49-35 win over Central Michigan was its first of the 2016 season and its first under head coach Bronco Mendenhall. The Hoos are optimistic despite a 1-3 record, showing improvement over the course of their last three outings.

“It’s a good time for ACC play,” center Jackson Matteo said.

Center Jackson Matteo and the rest of the Hoos are confident after last week’s win over Central Michigan.

On October 1 at 12:30 p.m., Virginia faces a longtime ACC rival that is also coming off a big win. Duke, fresh off a 38-35 win at Notre Dame last weekend, hosts UVA in what will be the Cavaliers’ ACC opener. The Blue Devils, 2-2 overall this season, are 0-1 in conference play after falling to Wake Forest at home on September 10.

Duke’s big win in South Bend came at a price as the Blue Devils lost star safety DeVon Edwards with a season-ending knee injury. Star senior running back Jela Duncan, who rushed for over 100 yards against Notre Dame, is also expected to miss this week’s contest.

Offensively, the Blue Devils are led by redshirt freshman quarterback David Jones. Jones has played well in the absence of injured senior signal caller Thomas Sirk, completing 64.3% of his passes for 1,090 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. A threat on the grounds as well, he has rushed for 100 yards. Jones and the rest of the Duke passing game may have to pick up the slack with Duncan sidelined. Sophomore T.J. Rahming and senior Anthony Nash lead the way as receivers, hauling in 26 and 19 receptions, respectively.

Overall, Duke comes in ranked no. 52 among 128 FBS teams in total offense, averaging 449.5 yards per contest. Virginia has been susceptible to giving up the big play this year, and Duke has five plays of 50 yards or more.

On defense, and Kris mentioned this in his preseason preview of the Blue Devils, a big question for Duke coming into this season was its pass rush. Well, through four games in 2016, Duke has matched its sack total (17) from all of last season. Duke’s D ranks 44th overall among FBS teams, but it will miss the injured Edwards, who leads the team in tackles with 29 after four games. Edwards had three sacks and three tackles for loss as well.

Duke’s return game has been pretty impressive so far, with Ryan Smith returning 10 punts for 128 yards and Shaun Wilson returning seven kickoffs for 238 yards and a score. Wilson, who is expected to replace Duncan at running back, returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against Notre Dame.

Like Virginia, Duke has serious questions at placekicker. Both sides would be nervous if this comes down to the kicking game.

Virginia Football Essentials

Hoo Facts

  • Matt Johns passed for 344 yards and two touchdowns as UVA defeated Duke, 42-34, in Scott Stadium last season.
  • Eight of Virginia’s last ACC openers have come on the road. UVA last opened ACC play at Duke in 2008.
  • Virginia leads the all-time series versus Duke, 34-33.
  • Duke is UVA’s oldest opponent this season. The Cavaliers and Blue Devils first faced off against each other in 1890. The teams have met every year since 1963.
  • Virginia’s 49-35 win over Central Michigan last Saturday was its first win under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
  • Mendenhall now has 100 wins as a head coach.
  • Senior tailback Taquan Mizzell needs just one catch to tie Kris Burd on Virginia’s all-time receptions list.
  • Kurt Benkert’s 421 yards passing against Central Michigan last week was a single game school record, eclipsing Marc Verica’s mark of 417 yards.

Blue Devil Facts

  • Duke has won six of its last eight meetings versus UVA. Coach David Cutcliffe has been at the helm of all of those games. The Blue Devils won three straight in this series before falling to the Cavaliers in Scott Stadium last year, 42-34
  • Duke has won 26 of its last 36 regular season games.
  • Duke will participate in the Curing Kids Cancer First and Gold campaign this weekend. The players will wear decals on their helmets on Saturday. Also, Leah Still, the ESPY Award recipient for courage, will be a guest captain for the Blue Devils in the pregame toss.
  • Senior running back Jela Duncan is averaging 5.48 yards per rushing attempt in his career, good for fourth on Duke’s all-time list. Duncan is out for this Saturday’s game.
  • Duke’s defense has tallied 17 sacks in four games this season. The Blue Devils totaled 17 sacks all of last season.
  • Duke QB Daniel Jones leads all freshmen nationally in pass completions, passing yards, total offensive yards.

3 Hoos To Watch

    • Quarterback Kurt Benkert.

Benkert was relaxed, aggressive, and confident in a record-setting performance against Central Michigan. It was a step forward for the junior signal caller. Duke represents a different challenge, however, because the Blue Devils can get after the quarterback. It’ll be important for Benkert to make the right reads and not force the issue in the face of defensive pressure.

    • Wide Receiver Olamide Zaccheaus.

One of Virginia’s most dynamic offensive threats, Zaccheaus had 160 total yards (141 receiving, 19 rushing) and two touchdowns against Central Michigan. Zaccheaus’ breakout performance is a long time coming in my opinion, as his speed and versatility creates serious matchup problems for opposing defenses. For Virginia’s offense to be at its best, Zaccheaus should have a big role every week.

    • Cornerback Juan Thornhill.

Thornhill, who missed all but one play of the Central Michigan game, is listed as probable for the Duke game. Myles Robinson, who filled in pretty well in Thornhill’s absence last week, is out for the Duke game. A healthy Thornhill will be crucial as Virginia tries to slow a Blue Devils passing attack led by receivers T.J. Rahming, a sophomore with 26 receptions this season, and 6’5”, 200-pound senior Anthony Nash, who has 19 receptions for 300 yards and two touchdowns on the year.

3 Blue Devils To Watch

    • Quarterback David Jones.

Jones was outstanding against Notre Dame, completing 24-of-32 passes for 290 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. The play of the redshirt freshman from Charlotte is vitally important to how the Duke offense performs.

    • Defensive tackle A.J. Wolf.

The 6’4”, 280-pound redshirt senior leads Duke in sacks with four. He’ll be important in pass rush and against the run, where Virginia has enjoyed success each of the past three weeks.

    • Running back Shaun Wilson.

Wilson replaces injured senior Jela Duncan, who rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame. He has 122 yards rushing and 53 yards receiving so far this season. Wilson is a factor on special teams as well, as he returned four kickoffs for 163 yards and a score against the Irish.

3 Things To Watch

  • Duke’s wide receivers vs UVA’s defensive backs.
  • T.J. Rahming, Anthony Nash, and Johnathan Lloyd are clearly Jones’ top targets, having caught 60% of the redshirt freshman quarterback’s passes. Virginia remains awfully thin at cornerback despite the expected return of sophomore Juan Thornhill, as redshirt freshman Myles Robinson is out for this game. Kareem Gibson will once again play an important role. As could Kirk Garner, Chris Moore, and Bryce Hall, in addition of course to starting safeties Quin Blanding and Kelvin Rainey.

  • UVA’s pass protection.
  • It has been well chronicled in this preview … Duke’s 2016 defense has shown it can get after the quarterback. It’ll be a challenge for Virginia’s offensive line and running backs to help protect their starting quarterback. Benkert will also make good decisions and not force anything.

  • Field goals.
  • Neither team boasts quality placekickers right now. Duke’s AJ Reed made a 19-yard field goal to beat Notre Dame; however, he is 0-3 on other field goal tries and has missed an extra point. UVA’s situation remains unsettled, with former soccer player Alex Furbank handling the duties. Furbank missed an extra point last week.

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