They say the longer the wait, the sweeter the reward. This season certainly has the potential to produce some sweet rewards for Duke. After breaking a 12-year losing streak against Wake Forest last weekend, the Blue Devils are off to their best start since 1994—the last time they reached a bowl game.
Saturday, Duke has the chance to take one step closer towards that bowl drought. The Blue Devils only need two more victories before they become eligible for a bowl bid, and they begin this countdown against the Virginia Cavaliers at 3 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Duke (4-1, 1-0 in the ACC) finally made it over its most persistent hurdle last week in its 34-27 victory against the Demon Deacons, whose defense could not contain the Blue Devils’ offense, which racked up 381 yards of total offense.
Another landmark that could be passed in Saturday’s game is an individual one, as wide receiver senior Conner Vernon needs one catch to solidify his spot atop the all time ACC receptions list. He is currently tied with Clemson’s Aaron Kelly, but will almost surely surpass this mark Saturday in front of his home crowd.
“After winning, I’m glad that he has a chance to break that at home,” Duke football head coach Cutcliffe said. “That’s a little more special in that regard.” Another player making a splash in the conference is redshirt senior safety, Jordon Byas, who was named the ACC Defensive Player of the week after a performance against Wake Forest, in which he recorded a career-high 11 tackles and his first career interception. Redshirt junior cornerback Ross Cockrell won the award two weeks ago after a two-interception performance against N.C. Central.
Not all news coming out of the Blue Devils’ secondary is positive. Cutcliffe announced Thursday that junior safety Brandon Braxton will not play against Virginia due to an upper body injury. Braxton was third on the team in tackles and adds to the list of injured Blue Devils, which includes starting redshirt senior quarterback Sean Renfree, who was knocked out of last Saturday’s game with an elbow injury. Redshirt sophomore backup Anthony Boone came in to replace him, but the starter for the Virginia game will be a game time decision.
“He’s been able to practice, limited in reps, but everyday he’s better.” Cutcliffe said. “I’m following the doctor’s lead on this.”
Renfree and Boone were efficient against Wake Forest, combining for 30 completions in 40 attempts.
Virginia (2-3, 0-1) will be looking to get back on track after a 44-38 loss to the 2011 WAC champions, Louisiana Tech. With a win against Duke, the Cavaliers would bring themselves to .500 overall and in the ACC. In past years Duke has normally been a soft spot in the schedule for Virginia, but with their recent success, head coach Mike London warned against taking the hot Blue Devils lightly.
“They’ve won the games they’re supposed to win... and people say, ‘well, you’re playing Duke,’” London said. “But coach Cutcliffe has done a great job of coaching this team.”
This season, Virginia has faced difficulties taking care of the ball. So far, the Cavaliers have forced three turnovers in five games, among the lowest in the FBS. Averaging two more turnovers than takeaways per game, the Cavaliers’ offense and defense seem have put the team in a difficult position.
“If you saw this game, there were two fumbles on the ground that really bounced underneath our guy and into their hands.” London said. “I mean, that’s baffling when the ball doesn’t bounce in your direction or in your hands.”
A shining light for the Cavaliers’ rushing offense has been redshirt sophomore running back Kevin Parks. Although he has yet to start a game, he leads the Cavaliers in rushing—both yards and touchdowns—and averages 4.1 yards per carry.
The Cavaliers may see the return of sophomore running back Clifton Richardson this weekend, bolstering Virginia’s backfield to a three-deep rotation, also featuring starting tailback, senior Perry Jones. The Cavaliers have used their rushing attack sparingly so far this season, but the addition of Richardson to the backfield may be the jumpstart they are looking for.
In the passing attack, junior Michael Rocco has received all the starts this season, but after throwing six touchdowns and eight interceptions in the first five games, a change has been made. Alabama-transfer Phillip Sims has been seeing action along with Rocco in the early going, throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions in his limited action. London announced Monday that Sims would be the new starting quarterback this weekend against Duke.
“It does help that you know you’re going to be the guy that’s going out there to take the first snap, but really that’s all you’re guaranteed,” Sims said.
The Blue Devils will travel to Blacksburg, Va. to face the Virginia Tech Hokies (3-2, 1-0) in search of their first bowl bid since 1994.