Virginia vs. Duke — a breakdown

Cavaliers look to bounce back from two consecutive losses

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After a stellar start to 2019,  sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa’s production has slowed down considerably, and offensive struggles have followed. 

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

Reeling from back-to-back losses to No. 8 Notre Dame and Miami, Virginia football will look to get back on track when it hosts Duke Saturday afternoon. Virginia and Duke are currently tied at the top of the ACC Coastal division, with both teams vying for a spot in the ACC Championship game. Let’s take a look at some key players and keys to the game that can help the Cavaliers (4-2, 2-1 ACC) defeat the Blue Devils (4-2, 2-1 ACC) for the fifth straight time.

Players to watch:

Sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa

While senior quarterback Bryce Perkins may be the undisputed leader of Virginia’s offense, Taulapapa is still a critical part of the system. In the Cavaliers’ last two games — their only losses of the season — Taulapapa ran for a combined 58 yards and zero touchdowns, averaging less than 3.5 yards per carry in both games. In his three prior starts, Taulapapa had 152 total yards and five touchdowns. After a stellar start to 2019, Taulapapa’s production has slowed down considerably, and offensive struggles have followed. Without a consistent running game, the Virginia offense has become one-dimensional and predictable. The opposing defense can focus all its attention on pass pressure and defense, placing a huge burden on Perkins and the Cavaliers’ offensive line. For Virginia to breathe some life into the offense, Taulapapa needs to start being an impact player again — an explosive runner and a threat at the goal line.

Junior safety De’Vante Cross

The Virginia defense suffered a huge blow against Miami last weekend when NFL prospect and senior cornerback Bryce Hall was carted off the field due to a left ankle injury. Bronco Mendenhall announced Monday at his weekly press conference that Hall had undergone surgery and was not expected to return this season. Against the Hurricanes, Cross replaced Hall at outside corner opposite junior cornerback Nick Grant. Formerly a quarterback and wide receiver at Virginia, Cross made the switch to safety full-time this season and has started every game. Under very difficult circumstances, Cross’ performance after Hall’s injury had mixed results. At times, Cross did everything right but, at other points, he gave up yardage on plays that could have been prevented. With preseason All-American Hall in the lineup, Virginia always had a shutdown defender covering one side of the field. Without that security blanket, the Cavaliers will need Cross to produce at a high level immediately Saturday. While Duke senior quarterback Quentin Harris may not be an elite passer, he’s good enough to beat secondaries that make mistakes. Expect Coach David Cutliffe and the Blue Devils to test Cross early and often. The Pennsylvania native will need to be ready.

Keys to the game:

Play hard all four quarters

While Duke has had an up-and-down 2019 season, the one constant this season for the Blue Devils, however, has been big scoring runs. Duke has produced scoring runs of at least 24 straight points in each of its last five games. In other words, the Blue Devils’ offense doesn’t need much time to score a lot of points. Duke’s 28-point second quarter against Georgia Tech and its 20-point fourth quarter against Pittsburgh are prime examples of the team’s offensive explosiveness. The Virginia defense has been excellent all year, but it can’t afford to ease up against the Blue Devils. If the Cavaliers allow Duke to get into a rhythm, there could be a huge momentum shift in the Blue Devils’ favor — one from which Virginia may not recover.

Figure out the offensive line

In 2019, the offensive line has been Virginia’s most anemic unit. The Cavaliers’ line has been porous, inconsistent and ineffective in both the passing and rushing games. Virginia allowed 13 sacks combined across the last two games, losing a total of 83 yards in the process. Against Notre Dame, the poor performance from the offensive line led to just 0.1 rushing yards per play. It was only marginally better against Miami when the Cavaliers ran for 2.4 yards per play. Leading the team in sacks and tackles respectively, junior defensive end Victor Dimukeje and senior linebacker Koby Quansah will be the key difference-makers for Duke. If the Virginia offensive line can find some way to be half-decent against the likes of Dimukeje and Quansah and the rest of the Blue Devils, the Cavaliers’ chances of winning this game will see a major boost.

Despite losing former quarterback Daniel Jones to the NFL — selected sixth overall by the New York Giants — Duke is as dangerous as ever this season. The team defeated Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech by wide margins and lost just one conference game narrowly to Pittsburgh. As Virginia gears up to welcome Duke to Charlottesville, expect a tight battle to be decided in the fourth quarter.

The game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon from Scott Stadium.

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