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Scouting the opponent: Duke football and Virginia set for ACC Coastal clash

<p>Duke's defense will be tasked with slowing a Virginia offense led by quarterback Bryce Perkins.</p>

Duke's defense will be tasked with slowing a Virginia offense led by quarterback Bryce Perkins.

Here comes the heart of Duke’s conference schedule.

After beating up on Georgia Tech this past weekend, the Blue Devils will head to Charlottesville, Va., to take on Virginia at Scott Stadium Saturday at 3:30 p.m. The contest begins the team’s run of three road games against ACC Coastal rivals over the next five weeks. The matchup with the Cavaliers may be the toughest of those road games, however, with Virginia entering the season as ACC Coastal favorites and reaching as high as No. 20 in the AP Top 25 Poll just a few weeks ago. 

Two consecutive losses—including a brutal offensive showing at Miami last week—have forced the Cavaliers out of the Top 25, but that doesn’t mean this weekend’s game is any less crucial for Duke.

“Big challenge this week for our team,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Obviously [we're] going on the road, but we’re going on the road against a team that may be as balanced as any team I’ve ever seen, and it’s kind of become their culture. Offensively, defensively and in the kicking game, in all elements of playing football we always talk about the blend here. They’re as good as you get at doing it.”

Let's take a look at five key questions for Duke as it prepares for its matchup with the Cavaliers.

Can the Blue Devils contain Bryce Perkins?

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall has done an admirable job overhauling the program, improving from a 2-10 finish in his first season at the helm to 6-7 in 2017 and 8-5 last year. A key part of that turnaround has been the play of quarterback Bryce Perkins. 

The dual-threat senior took over the Cavaliers' offense last season, passing for 2,680 yards, 25 touchdowns and only nine interceptions while adding 923 yards and nine scores on the ground. Perkins torched Duke in 2018, tallying three touchdowns and 250 total yards.

“[Perkins] is a terrific passer,” Cutcliffe said. “I hear people talk about him running. He is a terrific pinpoint passer. He throws about as well from any body position as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

How has Virginia revamped its offensive weapons?

Entering the year, Virginia was tasked with replacing the production of one of Perkins’ top targets in Olamide Zaccheaus, who posted a team-leading 1,058 receiving yards in 2018 before signing with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent. The Cavaliers’ new crop of senior receivers have stepped up in his absence, with Hasise Dubois pacing the team with 427 yards and Joe Reed adding 355 yards and four scores of his own.

Virginia’s rushing attack also needed some revamping entering the 2019 campaign, with last year’s leading rusher, Jordan Ellis, graduating and signing with the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent. While junior tailback P.K. Kier was expected to be replace Ellis atop the depth chart, a spring concussion paved way for the emergence of sophomore Wayne Taulapapa, who leads the team with 210 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

“They’ve got a good array of young backs,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re strong. They’re not as experienced just yet, they’ve lost some linemen, so they can find their way. They run the ball well at times… I think their receiving core overall is the best we’ve seen them be, top to bottom. Reed is a terrific threat, not only in kickoff returns but in the pass offense.”

Will Duke's offensive line hold up?

On the other end, Duke will be facing off against yet another defense that excels at getting to the quarterback. The Cavaliers rank second in the country at 4.5 sacks per contest, with linebackers Jordan Mack and Noah Taylor leading the way with six and five sacks on the year, respectively. 

After the Blue Devils allowed only one sack over their first four games, opposing defenses have brought quarterback Quentin Harris down five times over the team’s past two contests.

“Pittsburgh and Virginia are kind of two different things as to how they go about doing it,” Cutcliffe said. “Virginia does a great job of rushing the passer. The first thing it has to always be is throwing the ball on time. If you hold the ball and you put yourself in a circumstance—turnovers were created in our game. You get put in a situation where you hold the football, good things aren’t going to happen.”

Can Virginia's secondary continue to dominate the Blue Devils?

The other portion of Virginia’s 11th-ranked defense is its secondary, a unit Duke particularly struggled against last fall. Daniel Jones had one of his worst performances of his senior season against the Cavaliers, completing just 22-of-40 passes for 240 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

Virginia will be without cornerback Bryce Hall, though, who underwent season-ending surgery for an injured ankle Monday. The All-American—who was a projected first-round draft pick prior to the injury—hurt his ankle on a punt return in the Cavaliers’ loss to the Hurricanes.

“They’re a little different in the coverage mechanics,” Cutcliffe said. “One of the things that they do really well is mix coverages. They do a great job of disguising them, and they have really good athletes back there. So if they’re matching you man-man, which they will, you got to work hard to separate. It takes athleticism. If they're playing variations of zone or zone blitz, you got to recognize in a hurry where things are and you got to get yourself available.”

Can Duke prevail for the first time in five years?

Overall, Duke hasn’t defeated Virginia since 2014, but the Blue Devils view this Saturday as an opportunity to quiet the home crowd and push themselves closer to a Coastal Division title.

“[There is] no better feeling than going into somebody else’s house, punching them in the mouth and coming out with a win,” running back Deon Jackson said. “We always go in with that mindset. We always look forward to going into somebody else’s place and coming out with a W.”


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