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Third and goal: All eyes on the running game as Duke football looks to break through against Virginia

Duke's defensive unit faces a tall task against Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong.
Duke's defensive unit faces a tall task against Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong.

Duke football hits the road once more this weekend, this time for a matchup with Virginia and its high-flying offense. With the Blue Devils looking to secure their first conference win of the season, the Blue Zone brings you three keys to a Duke victory:

Ground and pound

A week removed from a record-breaking 43-carry, 152-yard performance from senior running back Mataeo Durant, the Blue Devils will need to keep moving the football against the ACC’s worst run defense. Week after week, the question has been whether Durant’s otherworldly start to the season would hit a wall. Turns out, after racking up 788 rushing yards through six games, the Plum Branch, S.C., native is the wall. The senior can take over the game if he sees the smallest of holes and can create options for the Blue Devils in the passing game.

The owner of the fourth-most rushing yards in the nation will need to tack on a fifth straight 100-yard game to help the Blue Devils avoid their seventh straight loss against Virginia. The Cavaliers' lackluster defense has been bailed out by the best passing offense in Power Five football, and Duke will need to raise the bar in the scoring department with the seemingly tireless legs of Durant at the forefront. 

Weaken Armstrong

This task is easier said than done, as the redshirt junior quarterback is having a historic season of his own. On pace for nearly 5,000 yards and 35 touchdowns, the Cavaliers’ Brennan Armstrong is a force to be reckoned with. His downfield passing skills are as sharp as anybody’s and he is aided by a deep receiving corps—six Virginia players have over 15 catches compared to Duke’s two. 

That being said, Virginia has a pretty one-dimensional offense, where running the ball can be all but ruled out except in obvious rushing situations. But on the other side of the ball from these potent receivers is a subpar secondary that has given up five 50-plus yard touchdown passes thus far, including three over the last two games. 

The matchup in Charlottesville, Va., is the ultimate test for the secondary unit, which has seen improvement and some breakout games from the likes of Leonard Johnson, Jeremiah Lewis and Jalen Alexander, to name a few. In the end, it’s a story of depth as the Blue Devils roll out a decent defensive line to get to Armstrong before praying a white jersey is in range to make a play.

End the streaks

There is probably only one streak Duke wants to continue through the weekend, that being the Durant yardage streak. On the other hand, head coach David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils have multiple nasty streaks to put in the rearview mirror before the hour grows too late. First, Duke needs to simply get back into the win column for the first time since its scrappy win against Kansas—the team's strong start to the season would be all for naught if the Blue Devils fall short of even sniffing a bowl game. The Blue Devils are also riding a 1-10 stretch and five-game losing streak on the road, with the lone win since September 2019 being a 38-24 game against Syracuse that served as one of Durant's very first breakout performances. 

The 3-3 Blue Devils also are on a 2-15 run against conference opponents. The seemingly top-notch Duke offense that destroyed North Carolina A&T and took care of Northwestern and Kansas has shown up exclusively for the nonconference games. The Blue Devils must get all components in step to earn their first conference win of the season in three tries. 

Lastly, Duke has lost six straight contests to Virginia dating back to 2014, the program's longest current streak against any team in the ACC Coastal. Look for the Blue Devils to come out in a turn-the-tide mentality as they aim to start anew and erase these streaks. Who knows how much weight the coaching staff will place on these trends, but the current Blue Devils are surely itching to get the conference season back on track.

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