Virginia will look to get its season back on track Saturday when the Blue Devils travel to Charlottesville to take on the Cavaliers in a match between two teams winless in ACC play.
Virginia (2-4, 0-2 in the ACC) has lost four of the last five contests in the series, including a 42-17 rout at Wallace Wade Stadium last year. Players on both teams recognized the comfort of familiarity in conference play but know Saturday will feature two teams very different than those of last year.
“The past kind of gives you a little confidence,” wide receiver Jamison Crowder said. “You know the guy you’re going against a little better. But at the same time, the past doesn’t really mean anything. You have to live in the present and play Saturday.”
Virginia’s schedule has not been an easy one. The Cavaliers’ previous six opponents have a combined record of 25-11. To put that in perspective, Duke’s (4-2, 0-2) opponents have a combined record of 17-17.
Despite how each team’s nonconference schedule has played out, both squads enter Saturday in hopes of picking up their first ACC victory.
“The ACC is how you’re measured,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “You can play all the nonconference games you want, but at the end of the day how you do in your own league and division is how you’re going to be remembered.”
The Cavaliers boast a balanced attack on offense, averaging 188.8 yards per game on the ground and 186.7 yards per game through the air.
Virginia’s rushing attack is led by junior running back Kevin Parks. Parks, who holds the North Carolina high school career rushing record with 10,895 yards, has already racked up 510 yards and six touchdowns through the first six games of the season and is ranked third in the ACC in rushing yards per game.
The Salisbury, N.C. native is the Cavaliers most consistent offensive weapon along with junior tight end Jake McGee, who has been redshirt sophomore quarterback David Watford’s favorite target. The pair has hooked up for a team-high 27 receptions and two touchdowns and provided the first-time starting quarterback with a reliable target when pressured by the pass rush.
"We've put a lot of time in off the field and on the field when nobody else is around, just me and him, throwing and catching, and just getting on the same page,” Watford said. “We spent a lot of time in the offseason just around each other, just to build that chemistry off the field as well on the field.”
Watford, who replaced Michael Rocco following his transfer to Richmond, has struggled with turnovers this year. He has thrown seven interceptions compared to just four touchdowns. However, through the previous three games, Watford has thrown just one interception and averaged 203 yards per game, 20 yards above his season average.
“What's occurring with David right now is that there's a certain maturation process that you have, getting acclimated to what's being called upon as far as the system, not having to feel like he's got to look over his shoulder when a bad throw or something like that is done, and just believing,” Virginia head coach Mike London said. “As I said, a couple games before, I believe in David.”
Virginia's defense has seen its share of ups and downs this season. The Cavaliers held Pittsburgh's Tom Savage-led offense, which put up 58 points against the Blue Devils the week before, to only 14 points in a 14-3 week five loss only to turn around and allow Ball State to score 48 points in a week six loss.
“We expect them to come out and throw haymakers at us,” Cockrell said. “And we’ve got to be ready for that both as an offense and defense. And we’ve got to be able to counter.”
The two teams are plenty familiar with one another, as the Duke offense and Virginia defense both returned seven starters this season. Saturday’s matchup will be a big step for either team in terms of postseason play, as the Blue Devils only need two more victories to become eligible and the Cavaliers will need a victory if they want their hopes to stay alive.
“I think for the most part they have the same guys on the defensive side they had last couple years,” Crowder said. “But the real story will be told on Saturday after the game.”