Of the six other schools vying for a shot at an ACC Coastal title, Virginia stands apart as the kryptonite to Duke football.
Led by head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who has never lost to his Blue Devil counterpart, the Cavaliers have been able to make sure Duke never has a good day against the Hoos even in their down years.
And with a squad that flirted with a top-25 ranking before a dip in ACC performance, Virginia looks to yet again be a daunting task for this year's Blue Devils.
Duke will take on the Cavaliers Saturday at 3:30 in Charlottesville, Va., at Scott Stadium. Although Virginia has hit a recent skid with two straight losses, the Blue Devils will still be set against one of the toughest defenses in the ACC, one that can very easily terrorize Duke's sometimes erratic offense.
"We're going on the road against a team that's about as balanced as any team we've seen," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "Offensively, defensively, in the kicking game, in all elements of play in football, we always talk about the blend here and they're as good as you can be at doing it."
From the outset, Saturday's contest will be a defensive grind, with two top defenses clashing against some of the streakier offenses in the conference.
The Cavaliers' linemen have mulched everyone who stands in their way, leading the ACC in sacks and allowing just 90 yards per game on the ground. Backing them up are a core of linebackers who have made a name for themselves in introducing quarterbacks to the turf. Sophomore Noah Taylor has grown into his role of outside linebacker with five sacks on the season, trailing just behind senior Jordan Mack.
With four players already picking up at least 6.5 tackles for loss—Taylor and Mack included—Duke's sometimes lackluster offensive line will have to step up big time if the Blue Devils (4-2, 2-1 in the ACC) want to earn any major yardage.
The only weak spot in Virginia's defense that Duke may be able to exploit is a diminished Cavalier secondary. With potential All-American cornerback Bryce Hall out for the season with a lower leg injury, the Cavaliers (4-2, 2-1) will likely lean on De'Vante Cross to fill in. Although Cross is solid at both safety and corner, he's a far cry from a projected first rounder like Hall, who dominated Duke's receiving corps last year with an interception and three pass breakups.
"Their linebackers are extremely active," Cutcliffe said. "They're based out of a 3-4 system, so four backers that do a lot of different things for them.... You're going to see three safeties that are terrific at what they are doing. They lost one of the best players in our conference at corner, but they just step up with another starting safety to corner."
Although Duke's Quentin Harris will likely have to rely on his ability to scramble once Virginia's defense gets fired up, the Cavaliers' Bryce Perkins will likely be in the same boat come Saturday.
With an offensive line that has given up 13 sacks over the past two games, there's no doubt that Virginia will struggle against the likes of Victor Dimukeje and Trevon McSwain—the former of which was named the ACC's Defensive Lineman of the week after posting three sacks against Georgia Tech. Couple that with Duke linebackers Koby Quansah and Brandon Hill ranking in the top-10 of the ACC for tackles, and the Blue Devils will force Virginia to either rely on a ground game that averages just 102 yards per game or a passing attack that has no room to breathe in the pocket.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
"[Perkins] is a great player," Hill said. "We know that, so we have created a standard for this game moving into him. Making sure we contain him and keep good edges and keep him contained in the pocket and play our defense."
Although the Cavaliers look vulnerable heading into Saturday's matchup, this Virginia squad is still arguably its most talented of the past five years. If the Blue Devils can find a way to shake off their demons and find a way to avoid the collapses that have plagued them the past few years against the Cavaliers, Duke would show that it has what it takes to square up with the rest of the Coastal Division.