After pushing through a roller-coaster month of September—which featured a home loss to Wake Forest and a potentially season-saving victory against Notre Dame—the Blue Devils will look for more consistency as they head into October.
Duke will look to win consecutive games for the first time this season Saturday when it hosts Virginia at 12:30 p.m at Wallace Wade Stadium. The Blue Devils enter the matchup against the Cavaliers following a 38-35 victory against the Fighting Irish a week ago, in which redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones passed for 290 yards and three touchdowns.
“It was a big win for us, but what matters now is building on it,” Jones said. “Taking what we did well and using a little bit of that momentum to focus all of our effort on Virginia.”
In the last three seasons, October has been a crucial month for Duke (2-2)—which has gone 8-1 in October games the last three seasons—and it figures to be the case once again this year. Virginia has struggled in the early part of this season, and is the only ACC team the Blue Devils are projected to beat the rest of this year, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Although the Blue Devils are coming off one of their biggest wins in program history against the Fighting Irish, Duke enters its second conference game of the season facing its fair share of injury problems, with the biggest coming in the backfield.
Behind improved offensive line play, the running back duo of Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson combined for 187 yards on the ground a week ago after finishing with just 113 yards in their losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern combined.
But the Blue Devils will be without the services of Duncan this weekend after the redshirt senior injured his ankle against Notre Dame.
Wilson will likely see the bulk of the carries Saturday, with redshirt junior Joseph Ajeigbe a likely candidate to spell Wilson. Duke struggled to run the ball against Wake Forest in Week 2 but finished with more than 100 yards on the ground in its past two games. Redshirt sophomore Zach Harmon has sparked the improvement along the offensive line, starting at left guard the last two games after beginning the season as the team’s backup center.
“Zach [Harmon] is playing well,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We made the decision that he was probably one of our best five [offensive linemen]. But it’s not just where Zach is. We made some other adjustments.”
The improved protection has also given Jones more time in the pocket to throw downfield. Although Virginia (1-3) has a secondary that includes All-ACC safety Quin Blanding, the Cavaliers are allowing more than 300 yards per game through the air and let Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush throw for 402 yards and two touchdowns a week ago.
Even against a suspect pass defense facing its first ACC quarterback of the season, Jones understands that the Blue Devils will need to execute as they enter the teeth of their conference schedule. A lone interception was Duke’s only turnover against the Fighting Irish, but the Blue Devils turned the ball over 10 times in their first three games and aim to protect the ball Saturday to force Virginia to sustain long drives.
“There are certain decisions and certain plays that we can execute at a higher level,” Jones said. “We can do a better job taking care of the ball. That interception [against Notre Dame], I would like it back.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Blue Devils must adjust without defensive back DeVon Edwards available for the first time since 2012. The Covington, Ga., native suffered a season-ending knee injury last weekend, ending an illustrious college career for the All-America return specialist.
Junior Alonzo Saxton II filled in for Edwards against the Fighting Irish, but Cutcliffe was not ready to name him as a permanent replacement.
“We’re working different combinations,” Cutcliffe said. “We haven’t made a decision. We’re fortunate we have some good football players at safety and more depth than we’ve had.”
Duke will look to alleviate the pressure on its secondary with a strong pass rush, one of the Blue Devils’ biggest strengths this season. Duke leads the nation with 17 sacks through four games—it had 17 all of last season—but will be without redshirt sophomore linebacker Tinashe Bere, who suffered a season-ending torn meniscus against Notre Dame.
Despite the Blue Devils’ number of sacks, Duke has been susceptible to big plays through the air. Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer netted 13 plays of at least 15 yards against the Blue Devils, and Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson did most of his damage on long passing plays. The last time Duke played the Cavaliers, Virginia’s offense racked up 502 total yards in its 42-34 victory in Charlottesville.
“They’re very capable of explosive plays,” Cutcliffe said. “They hurt us a year ago and had over 500 yards against us. Every week, every game is a challenge, more and more as football transitions to stopping explosive plays.”
With Duke back on its home turf for the first time in nearly three weeks, the Blue Devils will look to use Saturday’s game to set the tone for a crucial month of October.