Duke is not the only ACC Coastal Division squad that overcame early-season adversity with a much-needed victory last weekend.
After starting its 2016 campaign 0-3 with disappointing losses to Richmond and Connecticut, Virginia exploded for 21 fourth-quarter points in a gritty 49-35 win against Central Michigan—which upset then-No. 22 Oklahoma State early in the season—Saturday at home.
Now, led by first-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cavaliers hope to continue their momentum and knock off the Blue Devils for the second straight year Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium. Virginia beat Duke 42-34 last season.
“I’m excited about the progress we’re making. I’m excited about the [Central Michigan] win,” Mendenhall said at his weekly press conference Monday. “But you’ll find with me, this is a fairly consistent approach.... Now it’s right back to the things that we need to continue to work on and to improve.”
Throughout the offseason and its first four games, Virginia has made several adjustments. Mendenhall—who previously coached at BYU for 11 years—introduced a new up-tempo offense and a 3-4 defensive scheme.
Mendenhall and his staff have also replaced 2015 starting quarterback Matt Johns with East Carolina transfer Kurt Benkert, and Virginia’s receiving corps is adjusting to life without last year’s leading wideout, Canaan Severin.
Throughout Virginia’s first three games, the Cavaliers displayed their inexperience playing with Benkert in the new spread offense. During double-digit losses to Richmond and Oregon, Benkert showed little chemistry with his receivers, as Virginia rarely converted passes downfield and struggled with Mendenhall’s quick pace.
But on Saturday against the Chippewas, the Cavalier offense finally found a rhythm, recording a season-high 569 total yards. The offensive line—which was suspect against Oregon—did not give up any sacks, allowing Benkert to finish 27-of-43 for 421 yards and five touchdowns.
“Really impressed after analyzing the game and going through it [by] Kurt Benkert’s performance, the delivery, the timing of the delivery, the accuracy, the decision-making and the consistency,” Mendenhall said. “He was exceptional.”
On the outside, wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and Doni Dowling combined for 239 receiving yards and senior running back Taquan Mizzell added 168 total yards.
In Virginia’s win against the Blue Devils last season, Mizzell—a third-team All-ACC honoree—contributed three touchdowns and more than 100 all-purpose yards.
“Virginia looked really good last week against a really talented Central Michigan team,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “You can visibly see them improving as they become more comfortable with the way things are done with a new coaching staff.”
The Cavaliers’ run defense also made strides against the Chippewas, holding an opponent to fewer than 100 yards rushing for the first time this season. Even with the improvement, Virginia is still allowing 176 rushing yards per game and will have its work cut out to slow down Blue Devil running backs Shaun Wilson and Jela Duncan.
“Defensively it was also the best we had performed for the longest amount of time,” Mendenhall said. “The number of big plays against us is continuing to go down.”
Virginia has several key cogs in its front seven. Junior linebacker Micah Kiser leads the squad with 40 tackles and 2.5 sacks, and junior defensive end Andrew Brown and middle linebacker Zac Bradshaw have combined for 8.5 tackles for loss.
First-team All-ACC safety Quin Blanding—who is second on the team in tackles—also routinely comes up to the line of scrimmage to disrupt plays.
Even with Blanding, the Cavaliers have been vulnerable on the back end of their defense, giving up 306 passing yards per game. After surrendering 331 through the air against Oregon, Virginia’s secondary allowed Central Michigan to throw for another 402 yards.
The Cavaliers’ struggles are primarily a product of two injuries and a suspension sidelining their top three cornerbacks. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is now relying on inexperienced underclassmen Myles Robinson, Kareem Gibson and Bryce Hall to fill the void.
But as is the case with most other aspects of his squad, Mendenhall noticed improvement in the play of his young defensive backs against Central Michigan—they will now attempt to stymie an ACC quarterback in Duke redshirt freshman Daniel Jones.
“Both Kareem and Myles, I like the way they played,” Mendenhall said. “They played assignment-sound football for almost the entire game against a quality passer.”