Three-List Game Preview: Virginia Football Travels To Duke

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Through two-and-a-half seasons at the helm of the University of Virginia football program, head coach Bronco Mendenhall is undefeated against one ACC Coastal Division foe. That team is the Duke Blue Devils, who boast a 5-1 record heading into Saturday afternoon’s matchup with Virginia.

A big reason for Virginia’s success against Duke the past two seasons has been the play of Blue Devils starting quarterback Daniel Jones. In a 34-20 loss to the Cavaliers in 2016, Jones completed 33-of-54 passes for 324 yards and a touchdown but committed six turnovers (five interceptions, one fumble lost). Last season in Charlottesville, Jones completed only 14 of 42 pass attempts for 124 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

The 6’5”, 220-pound Jones threw 11 interceptions last season as a sophomore. He has only two interceptions in four games played so far this year, although both of those interceptions have come in the last two games. After starting this season red hot (29-of-39 for 389 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs in the first two games), Jones missed games three and four with a broken clavicle. He has not been quite as good since returning, but he has still been very good, totaling 40 completions in 62 attempts for 432 yards with four touchdowns and two picks the past two games.

Duke closed out September with a tough 17-point loss at home to Virginia Tech. After a bye, the Blue Devils returned to the field to beat Georgia Tech on the road, turning three straight Yellow Jacket lost fumbles in the third quarter into touchdowns to seize control. The 21-point burst boosted Duke in front 28-7, and the Blue Devils cruised to a 28-14 victory.

Jones is the focus, but Duke also features productive sophomore running back Deon Jackson, who is the team’s leading rusher, has scored a touchdown in each of the past four games, and is coming off a 98-yard rushing performance against Georgia Tech. Johnathan Lloyd (23 receptions, 297 yards, 4 TDs) and T.J. Rahming (24 catches, 279 yards, 4 TDs) headline the wide receiver unit, while tight end Davis Koppenhaver (4 TDs) is one to watch when the Blue Devils reach the red zone. Koppenhaver scored a touchdown against UVA last season.

Defensively, Duke ranks No. 38 in the nation in total defense, allowing 350 yards per game. Having allowed just nine scores in 14 attempts, the Blue Devils boast one of the top red zone defenses in the nation. Duke ranks No. 20 in the nation in scoring defense, surrendering 18.4 points per game through six games. Only Virginia Tech (31) and Baylor (27) have surpassed the 20-point mark versus the Blue Devils this year.

Virginia, meanwhile, hits the road after securing its first win over a ranked opponent since 2014. How the Cavalier players handle the success will be interesting to see.

The Cavaliers have exploited the Duke pass defense in wins the past two seasons, with quarterback Kurt Benkert throwing for three touchdowns in each of those contests. This year’s Cavalier offense is looking to run the ball with dual-threat signal caller Bryce Perkins and running back Jordan Ellis. Duke has some productive, talented players in its front seven, so Perkins will need to make plays through the air. Olamide Zaccheaus, who has a touchdown in each of Virginia’s past two games against Duke, could be in store for a big game.

The Cavalier defense is coming off an outstanding effort against Miami. The unit limited the Hurricanes to just three points off three turnovers, and 13 points in total. Cavalier defensive backs, led by safety Juan Thornhill’s two interceptions, picked off Miami quarterbacks three times in the win. Additionally, UVA may have found its placekicker, as Brian Delaney booted through three crucial field goals in the win over Miami.

Virginia’s players believe they can win every game remaining on their schedule. They believe they can be Coastal Division contenders. But they’ll have to bring the same focus and determination they brought last week against Miami. A solid Duke team will put Virginia’s mental fortitude to the test in Durham on Saturday.

Virginia Football Essentials

Three Big Questions

1. Was Miami a turning point for the program?

Virginia football was riding high into its home game versus Boston College last season, having won five of its first six games. The Hoos didn’t respond well, turning in a lackluster performance in a blowout loss to the Eagles. UVA would do enough to go bowling in 2017, but, beginning with BC, it lost six of its final seven (all losses were by double digits).

We won’t find out the answer to this question until season’s end, but Duke is the start. The players know what happened last year. They’ll have to maintain the level of focus they had against Miami in every performance the rest of this season for the program to take a true step forward.

2. Will Daniel Jones figure out the Virginia defense?

Bronco Mendenhall didn’t have a real answer for why Jones has struggled against the Hoos. How will the Duke signal caller fare in his third try against Mendenhall’s defense? The answer to this question could determine the outcome of the game.

3. Is Brian Delaney the kicker Virginia has searched for?

Virginia’s kicking game seems to have a regular spot in this section of “Three-List.” This time, there is some real optimism regarding the Cavalier field goal unit. Sophomore Brian Delaney took advantage of his chance to handle the job against Miami, booting through three field goals, including the first field goal of 40 yards or more in the Mendenhall era. Suffice to say, those nine points were crucial in UVA’s win over the Hurricanes. I think there is a good chance the Duke game will be close. Field goals could play an important role once again, especially against a Duke defense that tightens in the red zone.

Three Big Foes

1. Quarterback Daniel Jones.

Given past performances, everyone will be looking to see what Jones does against Virginia. If he struggles early, the mental game could make it a rough afternoon for the junior signal caller.

2. Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris

The All ACC linebacker was all over the place against Virginia last year, totaling 15 tackles including 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack in a 28-21 loss. He’s a consistent performer Cavalier fans can expect to hear a lot from on Saturday. The junior has 50 tackles through six games, including 15 last week at Georgia Tech, earning ACC Linebacker of the Week honors as a result.

3. Defensive end Chris Rumph II

The 6’3”, 220-pound freshman was athletic enough to play linebacker last week at Georgia Tech. Not only did he play the position, but he played it well, totaling five solo tackles and a sack, earning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Week honors. Rumph II is expected to move back down to the line against Virginia, which has to account for his pass rushing abilities as he has three sacks on the year. He also leads all freshman in the ACC with 7.5 tackles for loss.

Three Hoos To Watch

1. Running Back Jordan Ellis

Ellis was four yards shy of the century mark in last year’s win over Duke. The senior is coming off a strong performance against Miami and is always a key to getting the Cavalier run game going.

2. Offensive guard R.J. Proctor

If last week’s performance is any indication (Mendenhall said Proctor was probably the top performer on the offensive line against Miami), Proctor is close to or at 100% health after dealing with a knee injury suffered in fall camp. His return was a big boost to an offensive line that had struggled, so it’ll be important to have the junior leader healthy and playing the rest of the season.

3. Kicker Brian Delaney

If this is a close one, Delaney’s performance could be the difference in a win or a loss.

Hey, Remember When …

Mendenhall picked up his first ACC win and his first road win as Virginia head coach on October 1, 2016, when the Hoos defeated Duke in Durham, 34-20. Fueled by six Jones turnovers, including a late fumble (courtesy of a crushing hit from Jordan Mack) that was recovered for a touchdown by Eli Hanback, the Hoos outscored the Blue Devils 34-13 after trailing 7-0 early in the first quarter. Cavalier quarterback Kurt Benkert passed for three touchdowns in the win.

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