Three-List Preview: Virginia Eyes Seventh-Straight Win In Series Vs. Duke

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In each of the past two games, the University of Virginia football program accomplished something new. UVA’s win at Miami was its first win at Miami since Bronco Mendenhall took over as head coach. The Hoos had not won at Miami in a decade. Last Saturday, Virginia secured the program’s first ever win at Louisville, overcoming a 17-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter and escaping with a 34-33 victory.

Virginia football quarterback Brennan Armstrong leads a passing attack that is averaging 412.8 yards per game, good for No. 2 among all FBS programs. ~ Photo courtesy of Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

This Saturday’s matchup versus Duke has a decidedly different feel than either Miami or Louisville. UVA has won six consecutive contests in the series, including last season’s 38-20 victory in Scott Stadium. This will be the third consecutive year the Cavaliers and Blue Devils will square off in Charlottesville. Virginia has rolled in each of those contests, winning by 30 and 18 points. The Hoos have handed Duke double-digit losses in four of the five contests played in the Mendenhall era.

Virginia enters Saturday’s matchup on a two-game winning streak. The wins over Miami and Louisville could have just as easily been losses. Miami missed a 33-yard game-winning field goal attempt as time expired, and Louisville missed a 48-yard attempt on the game’s final play. As a result, UVA finds itself back at .500 in ACC play and 4-2 overall.

Meanwhile, Duke is on a two-game losing streak, falling handily (38-7) at North Carolina before losing a heartbreaker at home to Georgia Tech, 31-27. Clinging to a 3-point lead in the final minutes last Saturday, star running back Mataeo Durant picked up an apparent first down that would have given the Blue Devils a first down at the Georgia Tech 35. The Yellow Jackets had only two timeouts at that point, and Duke would have all but secured a victory. As such, Duke, which is averaging almost 64 yards in penalties per game, was flagged for holding. Head coach David Cutcliffe’s team ultimately punted, and Georgia Tech proceeded to drive 88 yards for the go-ahead touchdown on the ensuing drive.

Instead of being 4-2 and 1-1 in the ACC, Duke is 3-3 overall and still in search of its first ACC win over 2021. Beginning with UVA, the Blue Devils play three of its next four conference games on the road. Virginia’s second-half conference schedule includes three home games, beginning with Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. EST matchup versus Duke.

“I would love to say I’ve already looked that far ahead, but I’ve taken just the opposite and a really myopic approach with the team,” Mendenhall said. “It’s just this week, like we have no other games. We’re at Scott (Stadium) this week, and based on that one we’ll sit around the phone and see if someone calls us to see if we have a game next week. We’re literally just going, cliche, one at a time, and that’s the best thing I can do for our team.”

For all you need to know for Saturday’s game against Duke, click here to view The Sabre’s Game News page.

By The Numbers

UVA – 34.2
Duke – 31.5

UVA – 28.5
Duke – 28.8

UVA – 525.8 yards per game
Duke – 495.8 yards per game

UVA – 187 completions in 293 attempts, 412.8 yards per game, 17 touchdowns, 6 interceptions
Duke – 135-189, 277.5 yards per game, 6 touchdowns, 4 interceptions

UVA – 174 carries, 113 yards per game, 3.9 yards per carry, 8 touchdowns
Duke – 288 carries, 218.3 yards per game, 4.5 yards per carry, 18 touchdowns

UVA – 427.8 yards allowed per game, 6.4 yards per play
Duke – 430.8 yards allowed per game, 6.2 yards per play

UVA – 97-168, 226.7 yards per game, 14 yards per catch, 11 touchdowns, 2 interceptions
Duke – 99-179, 263.5 yards per game, 16 yards per catch, 13 touchdowns, 7 interceptions

UVA – 201.2 yards per game, 5.2 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns
Duke – 167.3 yards per game, 4.2 yards per carry, 8 touchdowns

UVA – 10 sacks, 4 turnovers forced (2 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions)
Duke – 11 sacks, 9 turnovers forced (7 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries)

UVA – 20 sacks allowed, 9 turnovers (6 interceptions, 3 fumbles lost)
Duke – 11 sacks allowed, 10 turnovers (6 fumbles lost, 4 interceptions)

Three Blue Devils To Watch: Offense

Mataeo Durant, Running Back, No. 21

The first spot in the offense series is usually reserved for the quarterback. Durant, however, deserves an exception.

Duke wants to run the football. Through six games, the Blue Devils have 288 rushing attempts and 189 pass attempts. Of the 288 rushes, Durant has 149, including 43 last week versus Georgia Tech. The 6’1”, 195-pound senior is a bonified workhorse, having rushed over 20 times in four of Duke’s six contests. The production speaks for itself, as Durant has totaled 788 yards on the ground and is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Durant has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in five of Duke’s six games, four of which came against Power 5 opponents – Northwestern (Win, 102 yards rushing), Kansas (W, 124 yards), North Carolina (L, 114 yards) and Georgia Tech (L, 152 yards).

A threat as a receiver as well, Durant has at least one catch in every game, totaling 13 receptions for 182 yards. He has 10 touchdowns in total, including nine rushing and one receiving.

“Versatility,” Mendenhall said when asked what stands out about Durant. “Yeah, just runs for power, runs for speed. He’s tough. Again, I think the system, again, we’re talking about David Cutcliffe (Duke head coach) I think is an exceptional football coach and person, and the system is really well designed. So they’re using their running back exactly as he should and needs to be used and getting a lot of production out of him. It’s not only the player but it’s also the coaching.”

Gunnar Holmberg, Quarterback, No. 12

Holmberg entered the 2021 season as a player with maturity – he has been at Duke since January of 2018 – but lacking playing experience, seeing action in only seven games in his career. The 6’3”, 215-pound signal caller has fared well in his first season as the starter.

In six games, Holmberg has completed 72.5% of his passes for 1,616 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for 189 yards and six scores. He passed for over 300 yards twice, first against Northwestern and then against Kansas. Duke won both games. Holmberg’s best rushing output came in those two games as well, as he rushed for 88 yards and four touchdowns against Kansas and 46 yards against Northwestern.

Holmberg, who is coming off a 292-yard, 2-touchdown performance versus Georgia Tech, has had some turnover issues. He has tossed four interceptions, including one in each of the last four contests, and has lost two fumbles. UVA has not made an interception since the North Carolina game, but the Hoos did recover a fumble last week at Louisville.

Jake Bobo, Wide Receiver, No. 19

Tough to pick one receiver here as Bobo and Jalon Calhoun (No. 5) have each had very good seasons so far. In fact I initially went with the 5’11”, 190-pound Calhoun here, because he fits the mold of the shorter, speedy receiver-type that UVA has had trouble with consistently. Calhoun has an 80-yard touchdown reception versus UNC to his credit this season. Bobo gets the nod, though, as Holmberg’s top receiving target.

Bobo has great size at 6’5”, 215 pounds. His consistent production has been equally as impressive. Through six games, Bobo has 45 catches for 522 yards. He has made at least five catches in every game, and in every game except one (UNC, 45 yards) he has had 81 or more yards receiving. Sure-handed, Bobo, who has an 84.6 receiving grade from Pro Football Focus, has only one drop in a team-high 56 targets.

Both Bobo and Calhoun have two 100-yard receiving games to their credit this season. Calhoun is looking for a third straight 100-yard receiving effort after tallying 103 yards versus UNC and 103 more versus Georgia Tech. Both receivers will be a challenge for this Cavalier secondary.

Three Blue Devils To Watch: Defense

DeWayne Carter, Defensive Tackle, No. 90

Cutcliffe noted during his weekly Monday press conference that pressuring Armstrong with the front four will be important for the Blue Devils. The 6’3”, 300-pound Carter, a team captain, leads the Blue Devils in sacks (2.5) and is second on the team in quarterback hurries (5) behind fellow defensive lineman R.J. Oben, who has seven. Carter, a redshirt sophomore, has accumulated a total of 4.5 tackles for loss and has three forced fumbles to his credit.

Shaka Heyward, Linebacker, No. 42

Heyward, who measures in at 6’4”, 220 pounds, has played the most defensive snaps for the Blue Devils this season. He leads Duke in total tackles with 54 (16 solo, 38 assisted) and tackles for loss with six, including two sacks. Heyward has four quarterback hurries, an interception, and a pass breakup to his credit too.

Leonard Johnson, Cornerback, No. 33

6’1”, 190-pound redshirt senior Leonard Johnson is one of Duke’s top playmakers in the defensive backfield. He has three pass breakups and two interceptions in 2021. One of those picks came last week against Georgia Tech. Johnson was injured while making the return, though, and his status for the Virginia game is uncertain. If he cannot play or is slow significantly by an injury, Virginia’s passing attack should be able to take advantage.

Safety Antonio Clary (#14) and the Virginia defense look to slow down one of the nation’s top rushers in Mataeo Durant. ~ Photo courtesy of Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Three Keys For UVA

Slow Down Durant

Durant carried the football 43 times versus Georgia Tech, a game Duke easily could have won. Cutcliffe says the talented running back responded well physically to the heavy load, which is good news for the Blue Devils, who may turn to the senior for another heavy workload Saturday in Scott Stadium.

Especially with a depleted defensive backfield, Duke’s best path to victory may be to maintain possession and keep Virginia’s offense off the field. An accurate Holmberg, who is a legitimate running threat as well, helps with this, but Durant is the key, and the Hoos must keep him in check. Aside from two Hassan Hall runs that went for a total of 105 yards, the Hoos were decent against the Louisville run, holding the Cards to 128 yards on the other 32 rushes, an average of four yards per rush. UVA has surrendered three rushing touchdowns of 50+ yards the past two games, which is not great, but it’s manageable if the Hoos can continue to play solidly the rest of the game.

Create Havoc

Turnovers have been a major factor in Virginia’s dominance of this series during the Mendenhall era. UVA has won the turnover battle in all but one game, the 2017 contest in Charlottesville, when the Hoos captured a 28-21 victory. Though each team committed two turnovers, it was Virginia’s Quin Blanding who returned an interception for a touchdown to start the scoring.

The 2017 matchup was the only game decided by single digits. UVA won by 14 points in 2016 and again in 2018, and the Cavaliers rolled to large victories in 2019 (48-14) and 2020 (38-20). Duke had two turnovers in the 2018 contest, five turnovers in 2019, six turnovers in 2016 and six turnovers in last season’s game in Charlottesville.

UVA turned Duke’s turnovers into 21 points in last season’s matchup, helping the Hoos overcome a 10-0 first quarter deficit. While havoc has been plentiful against the Blue Devils in Mendenhall’s tenure, it has been elusive for this year’s Cavalier squad, which has four turnovers (two interceptions, two fumbles), among the lowest of all FBS teams. Meanwhile, Duke has forced nine turnovers, including seven interceptions, while turning the ball over 10 times (six fumble recoveries, four interceptions).

If the homestanding Hoos win the turnover battle, I think Duke will be hard-pressed to come up with enough to win the game. Should UVA lose the turnover battle this time around, its defense will have to step up and prevent points. This is exactly what happened last week at Louisville, when a pair of Brennan Armstrong interceptions gave Louisville starting field position inside the UVA 30. The Cardinals came away with six points.

Making The Plays At The Critical Times

In this article by Steve Wiseman of the News & Observer, David Cutcliffe is quoted as saying the following after the loss to Georgia Tech: “There’ll be things to build on. But until you do the things of consequence that a coach has to get done, to where you’re not stopping yourself on offense and you’re giving up plays, then you’re saying the same thing every week, then I realize I’m not getting it done. Biggest thing, again, is penalties and failing in critical circumstances and then getting beat in the kicking game.”

The “failing in critical circumstances” line reminded me of Virginia’s performance against Wake Forest. Numerous times the defense came up short, ending any hope of a come-from-behind win the last time the Hoos played in Scott Stadium. Virginia made those critical plays in a come-from-behind win at Louisville last week. Many of these ACC games have a similar feel, where the game could be decided by a few plays. Virginia has momentum in terms of being the playmakers in the moments, while Duke is looking to turn things around in this regard.


Sabre Editor Kris Wright

After Virginia dropped consecutive games to UNC and Wake Forest ahead of two road games on the schedule, I’m not sure if any – and certainly not many – Hoos fans expected to come home to Homecomings at 4-2. But here the Hoos are. Back-to-back road victories at Miami and Louisville, no matter how dramatic or fortunate some may want to score them, have put this year’s team in position to keep Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure on track. Holding serve at home the next two weeks secures bowl eligibility, which the Wahoos would have achieved in five straight seasons (counting last year’s opt out) and all but one year of the Mendenhall era.

Next up: Duke. UVA has put together a successful string against the Blue Devils with a six-game winning streak in the series. That includes two straight home wins by big margins as the Hoos prevailed 48-14 in 2019 and 38-20 in 2020. The pandemic scheduling quirks of 2020 mean that this game is at home again where the Wahoos have been particularly strong of late. They haven’t lost more than one home game for three straight seasons (5-1 in 2018, 7-0 in 2019, 5-1 in 2020). That leaves Virginia on solid ground entering this one.

The biggest concern has to be Duke’s running game. If the Devils can get the ground game going, they could use that to play a little keep-away from UVA’s explosive offense and for big play action completions of their own. The Cavalier defense has allowed a 100-yard individual rusher in three of the last four games and is ranked 114th nationally in run defense. Duke’s Mataeo Durant has hit that mark in five of his six games this season, including a 152-yard outing last week against Georgia Tech. I think he’ll get there again this week considering the way the Hoos have played the run recently.

So is that enough to tilt the game in Duke’s favor? I don’t think so. The Blue Devils struggle in pass defense and come in ranked 118th nationally. So, there’s a little bit of strength vs. weakness matchup going on both sides of the ball. I think passing puts up more points than running, though. I like the Wahoos to win comfortably. VIRGINIA 44, DUKE 24. Season to date: 3-3.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

I think this game could be closer than some think. Duke has a solid defensive line that could challenge the Hoos’ offensive front, and if the Blue Devils are successful getting pressure with just the four, that allows them to drop seven into coverage. Offensively, while the Blue Devils have a quality pair of receivers in Bobo and Calhoun and a quarterback who is playing well, I don’t think David Cutcliffe’s team has the weapons – aside from Durant, that is – to match Virginia in a shootout. Brennan Armstrong and UVA’s offense pick up where they left off at the end of the Louisville game and UVA eventually pulls away for its seventh straight win over Duke. VIRGINIA 35, DUKE 23. Season to date: 3-3.

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