After a rough start to conference play, the Blue Devils seemed to bounce back with an emphatic win against No. 9 Notre Dame.
But with yet another top-10 matchup on the horizon, Duke will need to prove that its turnaround against the Fighting Irish was more than just a flash in the pan.
No. 6 Duke will take on No. 4 Virginia Saturday at noon at Koskinen Stadium. Riding a strong defensive performance, the Blue Devils are coming off a signature ACC win. However, Duke will need to clamp down on both sides of the ball to take down a red-hot Cavalier squad.
"I don't know if you can slow them down. They are maybe the top team in the country," head coach John Danowski said. "They are the hottest team in the country. We're going to do our best to show up and do our best."
All season long, the Blue Devils (9-3, 1-2 in the ACC) have boasted one of the most robust defenses in the nation, anchored by an experienced defensive core of JT Giles-Harris, Cade Van Raaphorst and Jack Fowler. Combined with a breakout season from netminder Turner Uppgren, who has totaled 100 saves through the season and nine against Notre Dame, the Blue Devils have been able to hold some of the most tenacious offenses in the nation to single-digit scoring.
"Defensively, we've been relatively consistent, but we do think we can be better," Danowski said. "Some of the mistakes, sometimes you tip your cap to your opponent when they make a heck of a play and you just say 'wow, that was great,' but sometimes the mistakes can be decision making, sometimes they can be lack of communication. We've just got to figure out, is it more about our opponent or about us. There is still a lot about us that we can get better at."
However, while Duke's defense has consistently been able to show up this season, the Blue Devils need to find consistency on offense if they want to take down a highly talented Virginia (9-2, 3-0) squad.
In each of Duke's three conference games thus far, the Blue Devils have fallen into at least one quarter of scoring just zero or one goals, with Duke's offense often times stalling out in the second half. Although the Blue Devils have solid scoring options in Joe Robertson, Brad Smith and Joey Manown, Duke needs to be able to adapt when these options run into effective zoning defenses.
Where the Blue Devils have fallen into ruts with their offense, the Cavaliers have excelled all season on driving the ball and finishing at the net.
Virginia has three players who have totaled more than 30 points through the season, with junior attackman Michael Kraus leading the charge with 51. Kraus and fellow Cavalier Matt Moore make up the core of Virginia's offense with their ability to both playmake and score. If the Blue Devils can't find a way to cut off lanes for the two attackmen, Duke will have a long afternoon come Saturday.
With just two more matches until the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils won't have much time to iron out their offensive issues before the postseason. However, if Duke can outpace the Cavaliers, the Blue Devils can finally put away any doubts through conference play.
"We've just got to continue to keep working, to identify what our weaknesses are," Danowski said. "Whatever it is, we're going to continue to search and get better."
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