With a shiny 4-0 non-conference record and a No. 22 ranking, Duke seemed poised to make a run at capturing the ACC Coastal title. However, the Blue Devils face long odds to win the division now, considering they sit 1.5 games behind Virginia Tech, which hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Duke.
Winning all their remaining conference contests may be the Blue Devils’ only chance at coming out of the season as ACC Coastal champions, and the road to this will begin this Saturday when the team hosts Virginia.
The Cavaliers are fresh off a 16-13 upset over then-No. 16 Miami. The defenses dominated the game, with the two offenses combining for 574 total yards.
In 2017, Virginia’s defense gave Duke plenty of trouble. Blue Devil quarterback Daniel Jones had what was probably the worst game of his career, completing only 14 of his 42 passes for a pathetic 124 yards.
Cavalier safety Juan Thornhill brilliantly jumps the throw on this play, and beats Jones’ intended target Aaron Young to the ball, coming up with an interception. The 2017 third-team All-ACC selection was a ballhawk all season, leading the team with 12 pass breakups and four interceptions.
Thornhill’s success has continued thus far in 2018, and he had the strongest performance of his season against Miami, with two key interceptions. This pick, in which Thornhill once again read the opposing quarterback perfectly, set up Virginia’s only touchdown of the afternoon. For his efforts, the senior safety earned ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors.
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And yet, despite having a strong secondary, the Cavaliers’ pass rush is severely lacking. Virginia checks in at just No. 80 in sacks per game, registering only 1.8 per contest. The Cavaliers lost their second and third leading sack getters from a year ago, Micah Kiser and Andrew Brown, to the NFL Draft.
Here, North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley makes a beautiful throw to the left side of the endzone, connecting with his receiver for a 16-yard touchdown. Despite a five-man pass rush from Virginia, Finley has ample time in the pocket, making it very difficult for the Cavaliers’ secondary to fulfill its assignments.
To avoid a repeat of Jones’ disastrous effort against Virginia in 2017, Jones will need to be cautious with his throws and allow routes to develop, provided the Duke offensive line holds up. If the Blue Devil passing offense can outlast Virginia’s defense, Duke will be in good shape to win its second consecutive conference matchup.