Three-List Game Preview: Virginia Football Vs. Duke

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The Virginia football team faces Duke this week.
Jordan Ellis has posted five rushing touchdowns this season to lead UVA. ~ Kris Wright

Kurt Benkert is slinging the ball around. Andre Levrone is sprinting past the defense. Olamide Zaccheaus is doing a little bit of this and a lot of that. Doni Dowling is making tough catches and yards. All of those are good things for the Virginia football team.

Yet the passing game, the 1,249 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air, may not be the biggest story during the Cavaliers’ 3-1 start this season. At least not during the last two wins. Against UConn and Boise State, the offense charted more than 150 rushing yards in back-to-back games for the first time in the Bronco Mendenhall era. In fact, the Hoos have eclipsed 150 yards rushing just four times total in those 16 games (Oregon and Georgia Tech last season plus UConn and Boise State this season).

Jordan Ellis flirted with 100 yards in both games, posting 95 against Connecticut and 93 against BSU. He scored three rushing touchdowns in those two games. It’s not surprising then that the passing game flourished with that rushing balance. Benkert has thrown for 728 yards and six touchdowns in those two games.

Prior to the breakthrough against the Huskies, UVA had rushed for less than 100 yards in six of the previous 10 games. The reason for that turnaround may be the play of the offensive line, which seems to be finding a rhythm and flow. Duke coach David Cutcliffe said the play up front shows up on film.

“They look much more comfortable,” Cutcliffe said. “They are fit and strong and they are in sync with each other. That’s one of the things people don’t understand about offensive line play. It’s not individuals. There’s five guys that have to be in sync. The more you’re in a program, the more you’re in the system, the better off you’re going to be in that regard, and they look like they are playing really well together.”

The challenge this week is to sustain that success with the rushing attack against a Duke team that’s been stuffing the run. The Blue Devils rank sixth nationally in run defense by allowing only 80 yards per game. Duke has allowed just 2.72 yards per carry, good enough for 10th nationally. The defense has allowed five rushing touchdowns.

Miami managed to crack the defense last week with 139 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. That helped the Hurricanes roll to a 31-6 win, Duke’s only loss of the season to date.

Let’s take a look at the lists to see if Virginia can join Miami in the winner’s circle.

Virginia Football Essentials

Three Big Trends

  1. Andre Levrone going long. Levrone has posted four touchdown catches of 30 yards or more this season, including at least one in three of the four games. He caught a 34-yard touchdown pass against William & Mary, added a 73-yarder against UConn, and hauled in two more from 30 and 64 yards in Boise. All of those surpassed his previous best touchdown, the 29-yarder in his debut against UCLA back in 2014.
  2. Third down conversions. UVA’s offense has converted 50% or more of its third down chances in three out of four games this season. The Hoos converted 7 of 12 vs. William & Mary, 9-18 vs. UConn, and 9-15 vs. Boise State, all wins. Even in the loss to Indiana, they came through on 10 of 24 for a respectable 41.7% conversion rate. At 50.72% (35-69) on the season, the Cavaliers rank eighth nationally. Duke coach David Cutcliffe praised UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert this week as part of this stat, saying “It’s been pretty incredible what he’s done on third downs as a quarterback.” The Blue Devils, by the way, rank second nationally by allowing just a 17.74% conversion rate.
  3. Third down conversions, Part II. On the other side of the coin, Virginia’s defense has been stingy on third down this season with only UConn having any sort of success by converting 5 of 11 tries (45%). Otherwise, the opponents have struggled. William & Mary went 1-11 (9%), while Indiana and Boise State both converted just 4-16 (25%). For the season, the Hoos have allowed a 25.93% conversion rate, which ranks ninth nationally. UVA, Georgia Tech, and Wisconsin are the only three teams in the country that rank in the top 10 in third down conversion rates on both offense and defense.

Three Big Questions

  1. Can Virginia keep posting explosive scores? So far this season, the Hoos have tallied eight scoring plays of 25 yards or more. That includes four from the Boise State game before the bye week (30- and 64-yard catches from Andre Levrone, 27-yard catch from Doni Dowling, 56-yard run from Olamide Zaccheaus). Through just four games, the Cavaliers already matched last season’s total in this category when they also posted eight. This is also a good spot to remind fans of just how good Canaan Severin was as a senior in 2015 – he had six touchdowns of 25+ yards that season, which helped the offense post 15 for the season.
  2. Can Virginia keep momentum going against Duke? The Cavaliers stormed into their bye week with a convincing 42-23 win at Boise State, which secured a 3-1 start for the first time since 2007. As for the Blue Devils, the Hoos have posted back-to-back wins in this series with a 42-34 victory in 2015 and a 34-20 triumph last season. Overall, Virginia has won 24 of the last 34 meetings between the two programs. Of those 10 losses, four came during the Mike London era. With bowl hopes bubbling up among fans, grabbing a win on the school’s Bicentennial Launch Weekend could spark even more momentum.
  3. Can Virginia keep the new turnover trend intact? UVA entered the season riding a 42-game streak with at least one turnover. The Hoos snapped that trend immediately with no turnovers against William & Mary and they’ve kept the 180 degree turnaround going through four games. So far, the Cavaliers have committed only one turnover all season to sit second nationally. The only team that can top that? Alabama has yet to have a turnover this season.

Three Big Foes

  1. Running back Shaun Wilson. Virginia fans should be familiar with this name because he’s been a piece of the Duke puzzle for three years now. The senior is 105 yards shy of becoming the eighth player in Duke history to reach 4,000 career all-purpose yards. He’s returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, a note to keep in mind since the Hoos have had some coverage issues at times this season. Wilson already owns the program record for long touchdown runs of 50+ yards with six in his career; that includes TD runs from 50 and 65 yards against Baylor this season. He ranks fifth in the ACC with 82.4 rushing yards per game in 2017. He’s averaged 5.04 yards per carry in his career. Overall, the Blue Devils average 212 rushing yards per game against Power 5 opponents this season.
  2. Defensive tackle Mike Ramsay. The redshirt senior sets the tone from the middle of the Duke defense. He’s logged four straight games with at least one sack, pushing his season total to 4.5 sacks so far. That’s tied for 12th nationally. Ramsay’s production has helped Duke put up 18 sacks on the season, good enough for fifth nationally. Ramsay now owns 82 tackles and seven sacks in his career. Keep an eye on freshman defensive end Drew Jordan too – he’s got three sacks this season.
  3. Cornerback Bryon Fields Jr. The redshirt senior is a threat to score on the defensive side of the ball. He already set the Duke all-time record with four interception returns for touchdowns in his career. That includes two this season against N.C. Central and North Carolina. Fields has helped Duke return three picks for six this season, which matches the school record set three times previously (1942, 1945, 1949). The Blue Devils have at least two returns (special teams or defense) for touchdown in each of the last six years. Fields has six career interceptions and 154 career tackles. That production comes with experience – he’s made 30 straight starts and played nearly 3,000 career snaps (2,773).

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