After their 22-20 loss to Syracuse Friday night, Virginia has now gone 11 months without winning a road game or beating a Power Five team. The Cavaliers (2-2, 0-1 ACC) will try to end both of those streaks against Duke (3-1, 0-0 ACC) Saturday night in Durham, N.C. when they will face a surprisingly solid Blue Devil team that only just lost its first game of the season to an even more surprising Kansas team, 35-27.
Players to watch
Duke junior running backs Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters
While these previews usually only feature one player per team, Waters and Coleman are so similar and so important to the Blue Devil offense that they have to be grouped together. How similar are they? Coleman has 39 carries for 211 yards and four touchdowns, while Waters has 38 carries for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Waters is 6 feet and 214 pounds, while Coleman is 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. The twin running backs are the backbone of Duke’s run-heavy — 56 percent of plays on the ground — attack.
The effect of these backs is more than just their running — their threat on the ground opens up the passing game nicely for the Blue Devils. While the two have combined to catch only 11 balls through four games, they draw extra defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, opening up throwing lanes for efficient sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard. This has been the basis of Duke’s best offense in years under first-year Coach Mike Elko.
Virginia senior defensive lineman Chico Bennett
Bennett was awarded ACC defensive lineman of the week on Monday after his heroic performance in helping slow down the Syracuse offense. The senior has four sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble through four games for a surprisingly competent Cavalier defensive line. Duke likes to run the football, and Saturday’s potential hurricane conditions will only make them more likely to pound the rock. Bennett — along with fellow senior defensive tackle Aaron Faumui and graduate transfer defensive end Kam Butler — will be responsible for putting the Blue Devil offense behind the chains on early downs and then pinning their ears back and attacking Leonard on third down. Execute that game plan and Virginia has more than a fair shot at the road victory.
Keys to the Game
Hurricane Ian is currently projected to be in the general area of Durham Saturday evening, and the rain is supposed to come down all day Friday and Saturday. The field conditions at Wallace Wade Stadium could end up getting quite bad, and the rain will be conducive to lots of running and defense. This favors the Blue Devils. If the game truly does devolve into a mud bowl, then look for Duke to lean heavily on its tandem of Waters and Coleman on offense and its solid run defense — four yards per carry allowed on 36 carries per game — to stop the Cavaliers.
On Virginia’s side, senior tailback Perris Jones will likely get the majority of the rain-soaked carries, with backup junior Mike Hollins having shown an unwillingness to run between the tackles and a tendency to fumble the ball. Coach Tony Elliott may also throw in a few doses of designed runs for senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong and big-bodied senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson — who scored on a pitch from the one yard line against Syracuse — in short yardage scenarios.
This has the potential to be a low-scoring, grind-it-out game. These kinds of games are usually won by the team that makes the fewest mistakes. The Cavaliers have been mistake-prone this season, committing 8.3 penalties per game — tied for the 18th worst mark in the nation. Multiple times against the Orange, the Cavaliers had stopped Syracuse’s offense, only for a penalty to extend the drive and deliver the opponent points. That can’t happen this week.
Virginia has also had a turnover problem under Elliott, committing 2.5 turnovers per game — a full extra giveaway more than last year’s team. Armstrong and his skill players need to protect the football and not present the Blue Devil offense with any short fields.
Finally, the Cavaliers are in transition on special teams after senior kicker Brendan Farrell was benched for missing a pair of field goals at Syracuse. Freshman kicker Will Bettridge replaced him and made a pair of extra points, but had another extra point blocked and has yet to attempt a college field goal. Elliott has said Bettridge will handle field goals this week, but his inexperience on a slippery day when every point will be crucial could prove fatal for the Cavaliers.
Bill Connelly’s SP+ projects this game as a dead even contest — with the weather looking nasty, the game seems more in Duke’s favor than Virginia’s. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. The contest will be televised on ESPN 3 and ESPN+.