Virginia Hopes For Good Start Against Duke

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Virginia opens the season Saturday.
Virginia running back Wayne Taulapapa (No. 21, 2 touchdowns) and Duke’s Victor Dimukeje (No. 51, 7 tackles) both had good outings in last year’s meeting. ~ Kris Wright

When kickoff arrives at Scott Stadium on Saturday at 4 p.m., the two football teams will be in different situations. For Virginia, the game marks the start of its season after numerous changes and an additional one-week delay. For Duke, it will be the third game of the season as the Blue Devils look for their first win of 2020.

The coaches see the challenges for either side in that set-up. The Cavaliers have no live feedback yet for where their team and players stand for the new season.

“It’s a significant concern,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Playing is really the only real feedback and accurate feedback that you get. And after a game, it becomes so much clearer where your team stands, where your position groups are and who’s capable and consistent and finishing plays. Then there’s usually a significant jump between game one and game two, which adds to that narrative and allows identity to be formed and forged at even a higher level. Where we’ve scrimmaged a number of times, against ourselves, and this fall camp which is extended for a long, long time before making it to game week. So, I would just say that we have more unknowns than Duke has unknowns. But that is just how it is.”

The Blue Devils, on the other hand, have gotten some of that early season feedback and it hasn’t been good. They’re off to an 0-2 start and they’ve committed 7 turnovers already this season. Duke coach David Cutcliffe said that his team probably has left 8 touchdowns on the field this season due to execution issues.

Now, Cutcliffe has to try to snap his team out of that sluggish start without any opponent game film to study. It’s the third straight week that the Blue Devils are facing an opponent in its season opener, meaning they’ll have played 27% of their schedule without any new film as part of the preparation process.

“I don’t like openers, period. I think it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever been through. I doubt this has ever happened in college football where a team had three openers three games you play where you have no film to study,” Cutcliffe said. “We know a lot about Virginia but you’re still not looking at the 2020 version of Virginia. Any changes that they’ve made, we don’t know exactly what they’re going to be. It’s been challenging. Our players are a little irritable about it to be real honest with you. It’s a unique setting. It’s what we’ve been given. We have to deal with it and just move forward.”

Essentials

Three Opponents To Watch

No. 51 Victor Dimukeje, senior, defensive end: He comes into this game after a strong performance against Boston College that earned him ACC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week honors. He had 3.5 sacks to tie the Duke single-game record. That pushed him to 17.5 career sacks, which is now just 4.5 sacks shy of Charles Bowser’s school record. Dimukeje has 130 career tackles, some of which came during a good outing vs. UVA last year when he had 7 tackles (1.5 sacks). Duke coach David Cutcliffe said he “has been outstanding.”

No. 72 Devery Hamilton, redshirt senior, offensive tackle: The graduate transfer from Stanford is closing in on 30 games in his career with more than 1,000 snaps. His 2019 season was cut short at four games due to an ankle injury. Hamilton started both games this season at right tackle for Duke and Cutcliffe said he “Has played really, really well.” Pro Footbal Focus gave him the team’s top offensive grade last week against BC, including a strong pass protection mark. He’ll need that again this week against a UVA defense that is going to challenge the edges with outside linebackers Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor.

No. 6 Eli Pancol, sophomore, wide receiver: The Indiana native doesn’t have gaudy stats yet in his career, but he’s shown flashes of solid production. That includes the team’s season opener at Notre Dame where he put up 3 catches for 78 yards. Another good outing came last season against Virginia when he had 2 catches for 33 yards and a touchdown. Pancol can be used as a trend-breaker in the running game too, including in the red zone. He has just 3 carries in his career, but one went for a touchdown against Georgia Tech last season.

Three Quotes

Virginia defensive lineman Mandy Alonso on Duke preparations: “The past two defenses that played them, they played them very well and we just want to mimic what they did to stop their run, force them to pass, and basically get after the quarterback like the other two defenses did.”

UVA receiver Billy Kemp IV on Duke’s secondary: “They like to play a lot of man. We’re very constantly talking about just winning our one-on-one matchups across the board. That goes for every week. Week in, week out, winning our one-on-ones. The game’s come down to one-on-ones being won, so that’s what we’re really focusing on doing this week.”

Blue Devil coach David Cutcliffe on the Hoos’ defense: “They’re really a good defensive systematic team. I think they’re as intricate defensively as anybody we play. They’ve done a good job of recruiting players. Their players are well-prepared. I’ve known Bronco for a long, long time. They’ve had some good fortune with some guys. You know Bryce Perkins coming in there made a huge difference. They were Coastal Division Champions for a reason a year ago, and they’ve got a lot of players back that return. They’re just challenging for a lot of people. Certainly, we hadn’t played as well as we would like against them and Virginia was a team we had been playing well against. So, we’ve got to turn that worm and we just got to go out and do the things that you do to win football games. First of all, as coach [Bear] Bryant used to say, more games are lost than won. We can’t go out there and lose the game with turnovers and a year ago, we wrapped up gifts and gave it to them.”

Three Key Questions

1. Can the Hoos keep the turnover trend going against the Blue Devils?

Virginia has won all four games against Duke to date in the Bronco Mendenhall era. One of the major reasons why: turnovers. The Blue Devils have had multiple turnovers in all four games, including two games with 5 or more turnovers. In 2016, it was 5 interceptions and a lost fumble. In 2016 and 2017, the quarterbacks had 2 INTs both years. Last year, Duke had 2 more interceptions and 3 lost fumbles. Is that just bad luck? A bad matchup with UVA’s scheme? Both? Whatever has caused the issues, the turnovers have been a big factor in the outcome. If the Hoos can keep the turnover generator humming, they’ll have a good chance to win.

2. Will Virginia’s improved offensive line be up to the task against sack-happy Duke?

One of the main offseason storylines for the Cavaliers focused on the experienced and improved offensive line. The Hoos have all six of their top linemen back from a year ago (though tackle Bobby Haskins is not expected to be available this week as he comes back from an injury) and five of those players will start in positions they played last year – left tackle Ryan Swoboda, left guard Ryan Nelson, center Olu Oluwatimi, right guard Chris Glaser, and right tackle Dillon Reinkensmeyer. The group gets a test right out of the gates. Duke has 9 sacks in two games, a 4.5 sacks per game rate that would have led the nation in 2019. If the Wahoos can’t keep the pocket clean, that could spell trouble in the season opener.

3. How does Brennan Armstrong play in his first career start?

Much of the offensive line chatter stems from one key personnel change for the Hoos from 2019. Record-setting quarterback Bryce Perkins, who showed off the ability to escape pressure and make plays plus be productive with designed runs, finished his career with the Wahoos last fall so UVA will have a new player stepping into that spot. Sophomore Brennan Armstrong has prepared for his day as the starter by serving as the backup quarterback the last two seasons and he’s had some standout moments in brief appearances to date. Still, being the starter is different and he’ll need to show that he can be productive in that new role. If he’s up to the task in his first career start, the Hoos will have a chance to win at home.

Three Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

In normal circumstances, it feels like Virginia would be the paper pick in this game. While the Hoos do need to work in a new quarterback and answer some playmaker questions in general on offense, the rest of the roster is full of experienced upperclassmen that have been through the conference battles. Plus, matchups matter and the UVA-Duke matchup has tilted toward the Cavaliers in the Mendenhall era.

The key question seems to be whether the extended preseason due to the delayed start is enough to get Virginia up to speed or will Duke’s two-game headstart create enough of an advantage to push this the Blue Devils’ way? I don’t think that line of thinking has a long shelf life, though. I could see the first couple of series being an adjustment period, but I don’t expect the difference to be so startling that an experienced UVA team with a culture built on focus and discipline will completely shortcircuit on the field.

With that in mind, I think the Hoos will ride their experience past any rust-busting part of the game and have control at home. I expect players up front defensively like Mandy Alonso, Richard Burney, Noah Taylor, Charles Snowden, and Zane Zandier to be the tone-setters there and cause problems for a Duke offense that’s off to a slow start with 19 points in two games. Offensively, I’m taking Terrell Jana’s word at face vaule as he said Armstrong’s “expertise” and “grasp of the offense” is “underrated” so I think the new quarterback will play well in his first outing as the starter. HOOS 27, BLUE DEVILS 17. Last season: 11-3.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

Since an ugly loss to Richmond in the first game of the Bronco Mendenhall era, Virginia football has won three straight season openers, including a key road opener against Pittsburgh last year. The Hoos (finally) begin the 2020 season at home against an opponent it has yet to lose to in the Mendenhall era, the Duke Blue Devils. Virginia crushed Duke in Scott Stadium by 34 points last season and has won by two touchdowns or more in three of the four victories.

Duke is off to an 0-2 start, falling to Notre Dame in its season opener and Boston College last week. The Blue Devil offense, with Clemson graduate transfer Chase Brice leading the way at quarterback, has made 37 first downs but has only two touchdowns and 19 points to show for it. Brice is completing just 54.4% of his passes, has yet to throw a touchdown, and last week was picked off twice. Turnovers have been a major issue for David Cutcliffe’s offense, which has surrendered the football seven times in two games. Five turnovers – three fumbles and two interceptions – came in the loss to BC. Duke lost two fumbles against Notre Dame.

While its offense has struggled to put up points, Duke’s defense has shown some quality play, highlighted by nine total sacks the first two weeks. If the Cavalier offensive line can keep new starter Brennan Armstrong upright, they could exploit a Blue Devil secondary that allowed 263 yards passing to Notre Dame and 300 yards through the air to Boston College. UVA’s offensive line should be a strength – how much of a strength could be a big key to how good the Hoos are this season – but there are questions, most of which come on offense. How will the redshirt sophomore Armstrong play in his first game as a starter? Can the Hoos establish a consistent rushing attack and find consistent replacements for receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois? How will grad-transfer additions – three are in the two-deep, including two in starting roles – mesh into the offense?

If UVA’s offense struggles to find itself, this game could wind up being a defensive battle. However, I don’t think Duke’s offense will pose a ton of problems for an experienced Cavalier defense. Season openers are worrisome – coaches and players have discussed potential turnovers and tackling issues – but I think UVA will make enough plays to score its fourth straight season opening victory (and fifth straight win over Duke) under Mendenhall. I think it will be close, though. UVA 23, DUKE 13. Last season: 10-4.

Sabre Message Board Fan hooman#1

We are finally here, almost a month later than normal!! Let me start with the matchup (Duke D vs, UVA O) that I think will be the difference for the Hoos. The Blue Devils have solid play on that side of the ball. They have two very good DEs in Chris Rumph (6.5 TFLs a year ago and Victor Dimukeje (3.5 sacks already in 2020) that lead the way. On offense for the Hoos, Armstrong cannot force many throws. If he can take what the D gives him, it will be enough to get the job done. This is a good measuring stick for numerous reasons. First, UVA’s OL playing against a good Duke DL. Second, how does Armstrong handle being the man and what is the passing game like? How well can the Hoos run the ball? How clean can they keep Armstrong? I think they’ll do well at some things and struggle with others. Don’t worry Hoo fans, the OL and QB will improve as the year goes along.

For the first game or two, I think the D will have to carry the team. I look for the UVA D (fully healthy) to hold Duke’s pedestrian offense (19 points total in 2 games) down for most of the game. Duke does not scare you with high level ACC receivers like Amari Rodgers/Tamorrion Terry/Tutu Atwell etc. nor with a running game that is overly efficient. Look for UVA to bring the heat and get a lot of TFLs and sacks while forcing a few crucial turnovers (Duke had 5 turnovers vs. BC with 4 of the 5 in the red zone).

Overall, I see three keys to starting off with a comfy win. 1. Win the turnover battle. UVA is the more talented team. When you combine both you are a near lock for a W. 2. Score TDs in the red zone. FGs are good, but scoring touchdowns in the red zone turns a close game into a blowout. The Hoos were 48th in scoring % in the red zone last season. Improvement can be made with better OL play. 3. Bring the heat to Chase Brice. Brice has been sacked 5 times in 2 games and has been under pressure quite a bit. He throws for less than 55% and has 0 TDs and 2 INTs. He will get some yardage but you cannot give him time in the pocket. UVA will bring exotic pressure from all over and confuse him into a few errors and make him eat the turf at Scott stadium multiple times.

Duke hung tough with both Notre Dame (10-6) and Boston College (7-6) for a half before being overwhelmed in the second half. UVA, on the other hand, has not played a game. Virginia fans are always cautious, rightfully so, in an opener against a team that has played twice even if the talent is not on par with the Hoos. In my opinion, UVA will struggle out of the gates. I see a tight game (say 10-7 at half) but the Wahoos win. HOOS 23, BLUE DEVILS 10. Last season: Not applicable (no fan picks).

Remember When …

Quin Blanding got a pick 6 against the Blue Devils.

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2 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. The Virginia defense is going to be problematic for the Blue Devils all game long. Expect a lot of pressure from our DL and our LBs, and expect Duke to struggle offensively as a result. Armstrong’s going to shake off any first-game jitters sometime during the first quarter; our offensive line is going to finally give us a tangible running game with our halfbacks; and UVA will build momentum throughout the game. Virginia will win this one, 35-14, because of the team and the culture that Bronco built.

  2. I think we get off to a bit of a slow start due to this being the 1st game. After getting behind early the Cavs come from back, behind the strength of the offensive line. The defense plays up to its billing creating a defensive TD! Hoos win 27-10

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