Football opens conference play against Duke

Virginia brings high morale as it comes out of bye week, 3-1

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Senior wide receiver Andre Levrone leads Virginia receivers with 348 yards and four touchdowns on 13 receptions. 

Callie Collins | Cavalier Daily

As the University celebrates its Bicentennial Launch this weekend, students and alumni have more than their school’s rich history to be excited about — their football team is off to its best start in years. Virginia comes out of its bye week with great momentum after a road rout of Boise State, and the prospect of bowl eligibility looms large. The Cavaliers (3-1, 0-0 ACC) will look to ignite what will be a raucous home crowd at Scott Stadium when they take on Duke in their ACC opener. 

Much like Virginia, Duke (4-1, 1-1 ACC) is resurging after a disappointing 4-8 season in 2016, and Coach David Cutcliffe has a lot of talent to work with on both sides of the ball. Virginia will have its hands full coming out of the bye week — when many teams are often lackadaisical — but Coach Bronco Mendenhall believes his team’s mentality has not been lost.

“They worked very hard. I haven't seen or sensed any lulls,” Mendenhall said. “The behavior has been really good. Sometimes [in] the college game, especially, on bye weeks players have a tendency to drift a little bit in terms of social conduct. I've seen none of that.” 

Staying focused during breaks in the season often requires veteran leadership, and Mendenhall seems to have found that in senior quarterback Kurt Benkert. The talent has always been present for the senior, but with more command of the offense and confidence in his game, he gives Virginia reliability in a critically important position. 

Mendenhall has taken notice of his quarterback’s growth.

“It's fun to see [Benkert] leading with confidence,” Mendenhall said. “It's fun to see him smiling. It's fun to see his poise and experience, but his leadership [is] coming out … The coaches are having to coach less and he's coaching more.” 

Benkert has another great asset developing for him in his rapport with senior wide receiver Andre Levrone. Much like Benkert, Levrone dealt with injuries and inconsistencies after breaking onto the scene with impressive play as a freshman in 2014. Looking to change the narrative of his career, the senior put in work and has become one of Benkert’s most reliable receivers.

“From the minute [the last] season ended, through the offseason and through spring and through fall, I've seen only durability and consistency and productivity [from Levrone],” Mendenhall said. “He's been as consistent in the games as he has been in practice. And I anticipate that continuing.”

Last week against Boise State, Levrone earned ACC Receiver of the Week honors for his 141 yard, two touchdown performance. He currently leads Cavalier receivers with 348 yards and four touchdowns on only 13 receptions. 

Benkert and Levrone may have their toughest assignment thus far against a Duke team led by an opportunistic defense. The Blue Devils stand at 4-1 after beating two Power Five foes — Northwestern and Baylor — as well as ACC archrival North Carolina on the road, before suffering its first loss of the season in a rough 31-6 home rout to Miami last week. 

Duke’s defense is aggressive and has a penchant for big takeaways. The defense ranks fourth in the FBS in interceptions with eight and ninth in sacks with 18. Mistakes from Benkert or his offensive line on Saturday could easily lead to turnovers or momentum-killing sacks. 

“They're pretty elaborate, very aggressive – [their] scheme is very well designed,” Mendenhall said. “They're sending four [pass rushers] and they're not afraid to send six or give the appearance of six from multiple fronts and different angles. So they're very aggressive.”

Offensively, Cutcliffe employs a versatile running game to deceive opponents. Virginia will see a lot of read option from sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones and senior running back Shaun Wilson. 

Wilson is a bruising runner up the middle and Jones is not afraid to pull the ball and run outside — he is third on the team with 274 rushing yards. Miami was able to stop Duke’s rushing attack on early downs and force Jones to throw deep, where he could not fit passes in against the tight Miami secondary. Virginia’s front seven will have to sniff out read options to stop Duke’s rushing attack and force Jones to be uncomfortable, much as it did against Boise State. The Cavalier defense intercepted Jones five times in a 34-20 win at Duke last season.

A Duke team on the rise will be a big test for Virginia on Bicentennial Weekend, but the Cavaliers will have a key weapon they haven’t gotten to wield in some time — fan morale. Mendenhall recounted the praise he got from Virginia fans at a high school football game on Friday.

“It was just the number of people that basically said how appreciative they are and how exciting it is and the possibilities,” Mendendall said. “They really want to be believing that this is going to work. And they're hopeful and optimistic and thankful.”

Virginia’s first conference showdown of the season against Duke is set to kick off at 12:20 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.

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