After having its games against VMI and Virginia Tech canceled and postponed, respectively, to start the season, Virginia football is poised to finally open its 2020 season against Duke Saturday at Scott Stadium. The Blue Devils (0-2, 0-2 ACC) come into the season having dropped their first two games against No. 7 Notre Dame and Boston College, only mustering 19 points across the two contests. The Cavaliers (0-0, 0-0 ACC) will open their season with a new face at center in sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who looks to start Virginia’s season with a bang. Last year, the Cavaliers defeated Duke in a 48-14 blowout victory, holding the Blue Devils to just 250 yards of total offense and extending their winning streak against Duke to five games.
Players to watch
Senior safety Joey Blount
The Duke offense has struggled to produce in the first two games of the season. After struggling on the road against No. 7 Notre Dame, the Blue Devils returned home the next week to put only six points on the board against Boston College. The Blue Devils do not have many proven options on offense but they do have Clemson transfer quarterback Chase Brice, who has the potential to win key games as he proved at Clemson. Duke coach David Cutcliffe, often referred to as the “quarterback guru,” has the potential to unlock all the traits that Brice has to offer. In fact, after throwing 79 times in the first two games combined, Duke and Cutcliffe have clearly conveyed their desire to favor the pass. Blount, a leader and ball hawk in the secondary, will play a crucial role in keeping the air attack at bay, especially with former All-ACC cornerback Bryce Hall now in the pros. In fact, given Duke’s ACC-low 3.6 rushing yards per game last season, Brice and the Blue Devils’ best chance to defeat Virginia is to challenge Blount with deep throws and force the 2019 All-ACC third team honoree to keep his head on a swivel. If Blount can track Brice’s eyes and stop big plays before they have the chance to materialize, the Cavaliers have a great chance to start the season 1-0.
Senior wide receiver Terrell Jana
The Blue Devils have displayed issues in their defensive backfield, allowing 263 yards in the air against Notre Dame and 300 yards the next week against Boston College. Expect Coach Bronco Mendenhall to take advantage and get his new quarterback Brennan Armstrong in a rhythm early on. Jana should be a huge factor in the passing game, and against a weak Duke secondary, he should find many opportunities to get open. Jana’s ability to make sharp cuts and get open in the middle of the field will serve Virginia well, as Duke All-ACC defensive end Chris Rumph II will surely force Armstrong to get the ball out early. While the Cavaliers relied heavily on former wide receivers Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed in the passing game last year, don’t expect the departure of the former stars to deter the Cavaliers from establishing an air attack, especially with Armstrong’s accuracy.
Keys to the Game
Force turnovers early
Last year, the Virginia defense was the key player in the Cavaliers’ rout of Duke, forcing five turnovers and scoring 20 points off of those turnovers. Forcing the Blue Devils into mistakes early on will allow the Cavaliers to jump ahead on the scoreboard and make Duke play from behind. Boston College forced two Brice interceptions and three team fumbles en route to holding the Blue Devils to just six points. Virginia’s outside linebackers — termed the “Havoc Hoos” — junior Noah Taylor and senior Charles Snowden will have to put pressure on Brice early and use their length to tip passes and get by blockers. All in all, forcing turnovers means flipping the field for Armstrong in his first career start. Should the Cavaliers win the turnover battle early on, it will mean a substantial advantage on the scoreboard, which will allow Armstrong to play his pace on offense.
Spread the ball on offense
The Cavaliers lost a lot of firepower from last year’s offense that scored 28 points on a strong Florida defense at the Orange Bowl. However, Virginia has done a great job replenishing the unit with a lot of new faces that offer potential. Towson running back transfer Shane Simpson should be a vital target for Armstrong through screens, checkdowns and tosses. Furthermore, Central Michigan tight end transfer Tony Poljan offers a lot of potential, joining sophomore tight end Grant Misch in a unit that should be able to stretch the middle of the field. Junior running back Wayne Taulapapa should see his lanes open up if the Cavaliers are able to thin out the defense with Simpson. With no real scouting report on this offense, spreading the ball around will keep the Blue Devils guessing all game long, and with Clemson on the schedule for next week, this game against the Blue Devils is important for working out the kinks before facing the defending ACC champion Tigers.
Kick-off is set for 4 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on ACC Network.