Against improbable odds, Virginia football somehow escaped with narrow wins at both Miami and Louisville to return to the comfort of Scott Stadium on a two-game winning streak against ACC opponents. The Cavaliers (4-2, 2-2 ACC) — beneficiaries of back-to-back missed game-winning field goals from their opponents — are heavy favorites Saturday against a Duke squad many have tabbed as the worst team in the ACC.
Under Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s direction, Virginia has reeled off five consecutive wins against the Blue Devils (3-3, 0-2 ACC) by an average margin of 17.4 points. With recent history on their side, the Cavaliers hope to keep their chances of an ACC Coastal Division championship alive and move to above 0.500 in ACC play for the first time since September 2020.
Players to Watch
Duke senior running back Mataeo Durant
Durant is Duke’s most productive player on offense. He leads the ACC with 149 carries and is second in the conference with 788 rushing yards. Additionally, he is third on the Blue Devils in receiving yards, and his 10 total touchdowns — nine on the ground and one through the air — significantly outnumber graduate student quarterback Gunnar Holmberg’s six passing touchdowns. For reference, Virginia’s leading rusher — senior running back Wayne Taulapapa — has three total touchdowns compared to junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s 17 passing touchdowns, so it is clear that the Blue Devils look to feature Durant in their offense.
In a close loss to Georgia Tech Saturday, Durant logged a whopping 43 rushing attempts, going for 152 yards and a touchdown. If Duke is to pull off the upset, it will likely be on the shoulders of Durant, who will be used early and often in an effort to exploit a Cavalier rush defense that has been dominated previously this season.
Virginia senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson
Thompson is perhaps Virginia’s most versatile player. The transfer quarterback from Mississippi State has been modeled into a Swiss army knife of sorts with his primary role now as a wide receiver. Thompson sits second on the team in receptions with 29 and is one of four wide receivers with over 400 yards receiving. He is also the team’s second-leading rusher while averaging an impressive 7.1 yards per rush. Thompson put together his best game of the season as a receiver against Louisville, corralling 10 passes for 149 yards.
Look for Thompson’s role to expand throughout the season as he gets more comfortable in his new role. A vulnerable Duke defense presents a great opportunity to get Thompson more involved, especially on the ground to help take pressure off of Armstrong. Furthermore, it is only a matter of time before Thompson finds success as a passer on some sort of trick play — and it would not be surprising to see it happen Saturday.
Keys to the Game
In Virginia’s last two meetings with Duke, the Cavaliers forced an absurd 12 total turnovers, leading to lopsided victories. While it is unreasonable to expect any defense to force anywhere near six turnovers in a single game, it is clear that being able to take the ball away has been a successful recipe to taking down the Blue Devils in the past. Virginia has only forced four turnovers through six games this season while committing nine of its own. If the Cavaliers are going to continue their domination of Duke and win games down the road against stronger opponents, it is crucial that they hold an advantage in the turnover margin. With a defense that struggles at times, being able to make just one or two possession-changing plays in a game can have a significant impact on the outcome.
Establish a consistent run game
Armstrong has undoubtedly been at the top of his game this season, proving to be a strong candidate for ACC Player of the Year. However, Virginia will need to find a complementary running attack in order to capture the ACC Coastal Division crown. Through six games, the Cavaliers have leaned heavily on Armstrong’s passing ability, recording only 678 rushing yards to their opponents’ 1,207 total rushing yards. If Virginia can find success on the ground through Taulapapa, Thompson and sophomore running back Mike Hollins, not only does it add another dimension to an already dangerous offense, but it forces opposing defenses to respect the possibility of a run, making it easier for Armstrong to carve up secondaries.
The Cavaliers hope to replicate the success they have had against the Blue Devils in recent years Saturday at Scott Stadium. Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on the ACC Network.