The past three seasons, Virginia has had Duke’s number. Regardless of the Cavaliers’ record—they have finished 12-25 overall during their win streak—they have always managed to find ways to upend the Blue Devils.
This year’s squad may be their most talented one, too.
Led by junior quarterback Bryce Perkins and two likely All-ACC cornerbacks in Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall, Virginia has seen its talent translate to positive results, highlighted by a signature 16-13 victory against then-No. 16 Miami last weekend.
“It is just a staple of really good football,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “You can see the influence of his recruiting taking place. They’re a blend of some veteran players and some good young players, so it’s now what I’d call a typically good Virginia football team.”
Despite struggling against the Hurricanes—tossing three interceptions in the contest—Perkins has been a difference-maker in his first year under center for the Cavaliers. Initially an Arizona State recruit that starred at Arizona Western Community College last year, Perkins has found his place in Charlottesville, Va., bringing a completely different game than his predecessor Kurt Benkert.
While Benkert frustrated opponents with his passing precision within the pocket, Perkins poses more of a dual threat, also liking to make plays with his feet. He ranks second on the team with more than 400 yards on the ground. Perkins has formed a dynamic duo with senior tailback Jordan Ellis, who has been nearly impossible to bring down behind the line of scrimmage, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and notching seven touchdowns so far.
Perkins is not always looking to run once he escapes the pocket, though. Oftentimes, he has made some of his biggest plays with his arm.
Regardless, the Blue Devils know that they do not want to play with fire.
“The biggest thing is we’re just going to have to keep [Perkins] in the pocket and contain him, and when in doubt, wrap up and make the tackle,” linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “He’s an elusive guy, so the biggest thing we need to focus on is tackling and making sure we know where he’s at all times, not letting him run wild and do whatever he wants.”
The other side of the field is where the Cavaliers have been able to do the most damage against Duke in recent years, though. They have been able to frustrate Blue Devil signal-caller Daniel Jones, who has thrown just two touchdowns to seven interceptions in his two starts against Virginia.
Although they will not have former All-American safety Quin Blanding, the Cavaliers are just as formidable in their defensive backfield, boasting one of the best duos at cornerback in the nation in Juan Thornhill—who has three of those seven Jones interceptions—and Bryce Hall, who has notched two of his own.
Thornhill and Hall have been even better this season. Thornhill is coming off a two-interception week that resulted in being awarded the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week, while Hall ranks third in the nation with 12 passes defended.
“They play tight coverage, zone or otherwise. They do a good job of getting a body on a body and being there about as well as anyone I’ve seen,” Cutcliffe said.
If the Blue Devils are going to have any success against Virginia, they will have to figure out a way to keep Thornhill and Hall from taking over the game.
Which is certainly on Duke’s mind.
“Our seniors could leave here without having a win,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s not a matter of making your mind up ‘We’re going to play better.’ It’s a matter of preparing, practicing and focusing on the things that give you a chance to win, and then when you get in the ballgame, you’ve got to find a way to win in the fourth quarter. That’s the reality of ACC football.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.