Keys & Picks – Virginia Football Vs. Duke

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The Virginia football team owns a 3-1 record at the start of ACC play.
Kurt Benkert and the Hoos have produced two straight big games. ~ Kris Wright

Few. A limited number. Not many. A handful. Whatever the actual number was, the Virginia football team’s resounding win at Boise State two weeks ago came as an unexpected surprise for many Wahoo fans. The Broncos, after all, had lost just six games at home since the 2000 season.

Explosive touchdowns. Determined and detailed defense. Low penalties. No turnovers. Aggressive but clean play. Mental toughness. Strong response to adversity. The victory hit just about every checkbox a UVA fan could want.

The Cavaliers themselves boldly claimed the performance as a new standard. Now comes the hard part. Living up to it. It’s fairly easy to put together one performance of that quality. Doing it week after week is a lot more challenging.

And now you have to do it against opponents a lot more familiar with your personnel, your game plans, and your game management than non-conference foes. Bronco Mendenhall called the preparation for league games “a substantial difference, and probably on both teams’ parts. Familiarity is really helpful, of personnel, of how the games are managed, and those things are all in addition to the style of play that you’re defending or taking on.”

With all the message board debates about non-conference schedules and setting up the program for success over the years, this is the phase of the season where programs make or break their seasons. It’s a topic I addressed in the offseason. From 2006-2016, the Cavaliers have accumulated a combined ACC record of 30-58. That’s a 34.1% winning percentage or approximately one win in every three conference games.

That stretch included the first seasons for Mike London and Mendenhall, who both finished 1-7 in ACC play in their debut year. London ended his tenure with a 13-33 ACC record. Al Groh, meanwhile, went 36-36 in league play. UVA coaching legend George Welsh, on the other hand, finished 85-51-3 in ACC play.

Long story short: the win at Boise State, unexpected or not, was nice. The real litmus test for this ‘new standard’ is ACC play, though. The first test starts now.

Kris’ Keys To Winning

1. Keep Up The Red Zone Work On Defense. Virginia’s defense leads the country in red zone defense, allowing just a 50% success rate for opponents. All of the red zone scores allowed have been touchdowns, but even that 50% touchdown rate ranks 37th nationally. Part of the plan with Duke has to be to keep big plays in front of you and force that offense to drive the field to score. After all, the Blue Devils rank 93rd nationally at 78.26% scoring rate in the red zone and an even lower 122nd at 39.13% touchdown percentage. If UVA’s defense can continue to be strong in the red zone and on third down (see below), it can set the tone in this game and that could help get win No. 4. (Of note, Duke’s game plan and strategy could mimic this exactly. The Blue Devils have allowed only six trips to the red zone this season and they’re tied with UVA at 37th nationally in touchdown percentage allowed at 50%. Considering Virginia’s explosive scoring plays of late, a keep it in front of you and then shut down the red zone strategy would make sense.)

2. Don’t Let Duke Sack The Offense’s Resurgence. Over the last two games, UVA rattled off 1,066 yards of offense, 11 touchdowns, and 80 total points. A balanced attack of a steady running game with an explosive passing game has catapulted the offense to back-to-back games with 35+ points after six of the previous eight games saw 20 points or less hit the scoreboard. Duke can derail the offense’s momentum train, though. The Blue Devils are tied for fifth nationally in sacks with 18 and for sixth nationally in total tackles for loss with 42. That includes an ACC-leading 120 lost yards created by sacks. In other words, they can put you behind the chains and make things uncomfortable for the offense. The Cavaliers can counter with an offense that’s allowed only six sacks this season, which is tied for 33rd nationally. Three of those sacks came in the opener as UVA gave up just one sack in each of the last three games. The Hoos are tied for 24th nationally with only 20 tackles for loss allowed too, including only 11 in the last three games. If Virginia can hold off Duke’s defense and put up positive yards on most plays, that should be a big factor in this game.

3. Win Third Down. Virginia is one of just three teams in the country to rank in the top 10 in both third down offense and defense. Duke joins UVA on the defensive list. All of that means that third down could be a big key in the outcome. The Blue Devils ranks No. 2 nationally in third down defense by allowing just a 17.74% conversion rate. The Hoos’ offense comes into this game ranked No. 8 nationally with a 50.72% conversion rate on third down. Unless they’re planning on scoring a bunch of points with big plays on other downs, the Cavaliers need to find a way to keep the offense moving on third down. On the flipside, UVA’s No. 9 third down defense (25.93% allowed) will need to keep it up against Duke, who is ranked 61st nationally with a 40.66% conversion rate on offense. Miami, by the way, converted 33% of its chances and held Duke to 26% on third down in its win against the Devils.

The Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright: A pair of one-loss teams lock horns Saturday at Scott Stadium. For Virginia, it must reset things after a bye week at the start of conference play. For Duke, it must reset things after its first loss of the season last week to Miami. So who has the edge? It feels like a fairly even matchup with strengths vs. weaknesses lining up in several areas (Duke’s running quarterback possibilities vs. UVA’s struggles with it; Virginia’s strong third down offense vs. Duke’s stingy play on that down; etc.). Special teams has a worrisome feel to it with the Blue Devils’ ability to create big plays in that phase sometimes. Ultimately, however, I think the Hoos have enough weapons to exploit Duke’s aggressive defense and enough options to get the job done on defense. VIRGINIA 34, DUKE 20. Season to date: 2-2.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: Virginia is riding high following consecutive blowout victories, including the surprising-but-impressive win at Boise State. Contrast that with a Duke squad that, after a 4-0 start, was handed a 31-6 home loss at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes. Not wanting to start conference play 0-2, expect a capable Duke team to play with a sense of urgency. I expect the Blue Devils to rebound from last weekend’s effort. However, I really like the way the Cavalier offensive and defensive lines are clicking, and although this is a 12:20 start I expect there to be a more hyped home field advantage for the Hoos. I think this will be a close one, but Virginia scores a close victory. VIRGINIA 24, DUKE 23. Season to date: 2-2.

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