Virginia returns home this Saturday to face Duke at Scott Stadium. This season has been full of heartbreak for the Cavaliers (2-8, 1-5 ACC), who have played most of their games close but have often been unable to seal the deal with a win. Their most recent game might have been the most disappointing, as Louisville rallied for 17 fourth quarter points to avoid the upset.
The Blue Devils (6-4, 3-3 ACC) peaked in week seven of this season when they were ranked No. 16, but have since lost three out of their last four games, including a two overtime loss to rival North Carolina last week. Duke was also shut out against the Cardinals three weeks ago, meaning that this Saturday’s game should be very winnable for Virginia.
The Cavaliers enter the game as slight underdogs, with the pregame line favoring Duke by just four points. Clearly, people recognize that the Virginia team is better than their 2-8 record may show.
Player to Watch — Duke freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis
All signs point to the Cavaliers facing Loftis. Junior quarterback Riley Leonard, who had been the starter the past two seasons, was injured in the game against Louisville, opening the door for Loftis to get an unexpected opportunity to play in his first year. The situation is nearly identical to the one in Charlottesville, with freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea taking over for an injured senior quarterback Tony Muskett.
Loftis has looked quite good in his short time for the Blue Devils. After leading his team to victory in his first career start against Wake Forest, Loftis scored three touchdowns and had no interceptions in a close battle against the Tar Heels. Loftis, who chose Duke over offers from Georgia and Kentucky, will look to continue that success against Virginia.
All three of Loftis’ touchdowns last week were to junior wide receiver Jordan Moore. The Maryland native leads the team and is ninth in the ACC with 571 yards. His seven touchdowns are tied for second in the league,j senior wide receiver Malik Washington. The Cavaliers will undoubtedly need to slow him down to have a chance in this game.
Keys to Victory
Stop the Duke rushing attack
Especially with their starting quarterback out, the Blue Devils offense will be prioritizing the ground game. They are fifth in the ACC, averaging 179.9 rushing yards per game compared to a Virginia team that is last with just 120.2 yards per contest. The Duke rushing attack is led by graduate running back Jordan Waters who places is eighth in ACC with 677 yards and second in touchdowns with a total of 12. Last week against North Carolina he put up a remarkable performance with 113 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cavaliers' run defense has left something to be desired this season — only two teams have given up more rushing yards per game than they have. On Saturday, it will be up to guys like graduate student defensive tackle Aaron Faumui and graduate student defensive end Chico Bennett Jr., who have 6.5 and 4.5 tackles for loss respectively, to limit the number of explosive plays for Waters.
Overcome the strong Duke secondary
The Blue Devils have one of the best defenses in the conference, allowing the third-fewest points per game with 18.8. However, their strength does not touch the quarterback, as their team leader, senior defensive tackle Aeneas Peebles, has just three sacks. In contrast, their secondary allows just 196.6 yards per game, good for fifth in the ACC.
The player to watch for will be senior cornerback Al Blades Jr. Although he does not have any interceptions on the season, he is tied for seventh in the ACC with seven pass deflections. Blades Jr. is incredibly athletic and has great speed for the position. He also has good instincts and anticipation that allow him to get his hands on the football. However, Blades Jr. does have some weaknesses that Colandrea and his receiving core can exploit.
Blades Jr.'s style of play tends to be prone to penalties. The Virginia offense can utilize some quick releases to force tight coverage and potentially some pass interference calls. Blades Jr. also tends to play more hesitant when he is in zone coverage — if Colandrea sees the secondary in zone coverage, he should attack Blades Jr.’s zone.
The Cavaliers have a real opportunity to pull off an upset in their second-to-last game of the season. Doing so will rely on strong play from the freshman Colandrea, putting a stop to Duke’s rushing success, and exploiting the weaknesses of a strong Blue Devil secondary. However, as evidenced by their performances against the Cardinals and Miami, Virginia can hang with just about any team in the ACC.
The game will be this Saturday afternoon at 3 at Scott Stadium. You can also catch the game on the CW.