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Duke football looks to start turnaround against Virginia

Duke will have to avoid turning the ball over if it wants to turn its season around Saturday.
Duke will have to avoid turning the ball over if it wants to turn its season around Saturday.

Saturday marks the first time Virginia will take the field this season, and Duke is praying the Cavaliers play like it.

For a third straight week, the Blue Devils will be facing a team opening its 2020 campaign when they travel to Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., to take on Virginia this Saturday at 4 p.m. The Cavaliers were initially slated to have already played Virginia Tech last weekend, but positive COVID tests from the Hokie side resulted in a postponement.

“I don’t like openers, period,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I think it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever been through. I doubt this has ever happened in college football where a team had three openers, three games you play where you have no film to study."

The Blue Devils (0-2, 0-2 in the ACC) went from disadvantaged to tragically deprived Wednesday, as it was announced that cornerbacks Mark Gilbert and Josh Blackwell were out indefinitely. For a team still desperately looking for its first win, their absences will only pile on to the challenges Duke will face this weekend.

“[Playing teams to open their seasons] is definitely irritating, more so for the defense, I think,” sophomore wide receiver Jake Bobo said. “It’s tough, because we don’t have any film of those guys so far this year. Virginia, they’re a very multiple defense in some of the schemes that they run. They look to confuse you, and so not having any film of them in the 2020 season, that’s tough as an offense.”

But this is the ACC Coastal. On a weekly basis, anything can happen. And even though Virginia won the division last year, the past eight seasons have provided eight different Coastal champions, an impressive feat of parity.

Where losing Gilbert and Blackwell hurts the most—besides the former’s moving comeback story—is against Virginia’s aerial attack. The Cavaliers have a fairly balanced offense, but their talent is weakest under center and out wide after losing their starting quarterback and two of their top three receivers from 2019. Duke's elite pass rush still stands a good chance of harassing new starter Brennan Armstrong when he drops back, but that assignment is certainly much harder now than it was when the team's top two corners were available.

The ACC Coastal is where logic and reasonable expectations come to die, however.

“I think in any competitive circumstance, you’ve got to have a short memory, especially in ACC play this year,” redshirt junior defensive end Chris Rumph II said. “Obviously an 0-2 start isn’t where we want to be, but that doesn’t change our attitude. It only makes us anxious to get out there and prove what we have.”

Given the matchup, it wouldn't be a surprise to see this game end up as a defensive struggle. That’s probably not where Duke wants to be after how the defensive struggle in its first half with Boston College turned out, but it’s certainly what the Blue Devils will have to do to win several games this year. And it starts with cleaning up last week’s mistakes.

“I think not turning the ball over four times in the red zone, that’ll get you points,” Bobo said. “It’s just a matter of execution at this point.”

Preparation will make the difference this Saturday. Cutliffe said he thought the team was underprepared “not only for Boston College, but for Notre Dame.” With the Cavalier defense being based around a number of zone shells, how well-prepared Duke comes out of the gate will be telling, both for this game and for the rest of the season.

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