Throughout the season, quarterback Daniel Jones and his squad of Blue Devils have been systematically proving that this team is far different from previous iterations of Duke that have come before.
And with a Virginia squad on the horizon that has consistently had the Blue Devils' number in past years, Duke is looking to buck yet another trend.
The Blue Devils will host the Cavaliers Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium. Although Jones has shown throughout the year that he has improved dramatically, he will be leading Duke against a Virginia team that he has never taken down in his tenure as a Blue Devil. Duke will need to rely on its gritty defense along with its elite unit of running backs if it wants to secure bowl eligibility for the second straight year.
"There's no question that we're challenged," Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I had a conversation with Daniel Sunday and he feels challenged. Our receivers are playing at a higher level. Our receivers are separating better. They're making contested catches better. Now I want to go from better to best. That's what we need to do, because [Virginia] is going to challenge us, no question."
Unfortunately for Duke (5-1, 1-1 in the ACC), the Cavaliers have been a matchup nightmare for the Blue Devils in the past and it's unlikely Saturday's contest will be any different.
Virginia cornerbacks Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall have terrorized Jones in the past, with both players combining for five interceptions on the Duke quarterback in the teams' last two matchups. Just a week ago, Thornhill notched a pair of interceptions against Miami and Hall currently sits tied for third in the nation with 12 passes defended. Although Jones has proven himself as an accurate passer this season, sitting at a passing percentage of 68.3, the redshirt junior will need to be completely dialed in to avoid a repeat of Duke's embarrassing home showing against Virginia Tech just two weeks earlier.
"[We just need to] man up," receiver T.J. Rahming said on how Duke's receiving corps can stave off Virginia. "We got beat up as a receiving group [last year]. This year, we're ready. It's a great matchup, but at the same time we're going to come in confident and trust in everything that we've worked on."
Although the Blue Devils have the option to forego attacking through the air and instead focus on running the ball—Duke has two high-powered rushing weapons in Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson—the Cavaliers will not make it easy. Virginia (4-2, 2-1) currently sits at 39 nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 130 yards per game.
Despite the Cavaliers presenting one of the toughest defensive obstacles for the Blue Devils to overcome this season, Duke has a vaunted defense of its own—one that may make all the difference on Saturday.
Virginia's offense has been propped up by the dynamic running duo of quarterback Bryce Perkins and running back Jordan Ellis, who have combined for 966 total rushing yards this season both with over four yards per carry and 10 touchdowns between the two. Perkins has also proven to be a dual threat, connecting on 62.7 percent of his passes and notching six touchdowns to favored receiver Olamide Zaccheaus.
Although Duke's secondary has been crippled without Mark Gilbert and a fully healthy Michael Carter II, the Blue Devils have some of the best linebackers in the nation for taking down rushing offenses. In last week's contest against Georgia Tech—the nation's top rushing team—linebackers Joe Giles-Harris, Ben Humphreys and Chris Rumph II combined for 33 tackles and wreaked havoc on the Yellow Jackets' option offense.
The Blue Devils will be without Edgar Cerenord in the trenches, but freshman Tahj Rice and sophomore Axel Nyembwe have filled in admirably to maintain Duke's resilience to attacks on the ground. Expect the Cavaliers to rely heavily on Perkins' arm—and consequentially the Blue Devil defense will likely come down to its secondary.
"It's the next man up mentality," Giles-Harris said. "Our defensive line is very, very good and I've said that since August and since January, and guys step in and play big-time roles. Trevon McSwain, Axel Nyembwe, Derrick Tangelo, they're all very good interior guys who can make plays themselves. I don't think the level of productivity will drop any bit [without Cerenord]. Those guys know the role and know they have to step up now that we've lost Edgar, but we're up for the challenge."
With just one more win needed to earn bowl eligibility and realistically only one more ACC loss left to give up in order to remain Coastal division contenders, Duke's showing against Virginia has the potential to be season defining.
Hopefully for the Blue Devils, they've put the past behind them for good.
"We know it's going to be a physical game," redshirt junior defensive tackle Trevon McSwain said. "We know it's going to come down to who's defense is more prepared and ready to be more physical....every year I've been here its been a fight."
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