Duke football fell hard Saturday on the road against Virginia, failing to put up any points in a 48-0 loss. With three key takeaways, stats and a look ahead, the Blue Zone breaks down everything you need to know about the Blue Devils' performance against the Cavaliers:
Three key takeaways:
1. Defenseless defense
It’s hard to pick out one thing in particular that stood out about Duke’s beatdown at Virginia, as every aspect of the team collapsed into a muddled cacophony of disappointing football. But if one thing did stand out, it was the defense, or lack thereof. The Cavaliers’ offense, high-powered even on a bad day, was always going to be a challenge for the struggling Duke secondary, but Saturday was a different beast altogether. Virginia ran through every level of the Blue Devils’ defensive scheme like a hot knife through butter, finding myriad holes for wide-open passes and storming down the field with little resistance. Whether it was player hesitancy, tactical mismatches or maybe Mercury was just in retrograde, something went wrong for the Duke defense, and the Cavaliers were there at every turn to take advantage.
2. Shootout? Not so much
Coming into the matchup, many (myself included) predicted that this game between two ACC-leading offenses and two ACC-trailing defenses would be a high-scoring one on both sides. Virginia delivered on that front, putting up 48 points on the back of 528 yards of total offense. Duke, on the other hand, obviously did not. While the Blue Devils seemed to have some offensive momentum at the start, pushing all the way to Virginia's 7-yard line after a few long third-down conversions, the field goal attempt pinged off the left upright and Duke never got its mojo back. That first drive was the last until late in the third to even cross the 50-yard line, as, for the rest of the game, sloppy mistakes and general anemia plagued the offense.
3. Deflated confidence
While this game was a culmination of all the weaknesses that have reared their head for Duke this season, it doesn’t feel fair to call it representative of what the Blue Devils can bring to the field. It does show one thing, however: it’s nigh impossible to save a runaway train once it’s off the tracks, and that's exactly what happened to Duke Saturday.
Regardless of whether they are capable of better (they are) or still have potential to unlock (they do), giving up as many points in as little time as the Blue Devils did to enter the second half down 34-0 is the ultimate confidence killer. Even with a half to go, they were likely never going to be able to mount much of a comeback, even as Virginia slowed down significantly in the second half. Rebounding from this setback, to put it nicely, will be less about retooling the actual game plan—though that’s still necessary—and more about reflecting on how to keep it together in the face of the adversity they’ll see every week for the rest of the season.
Three key stats:
1. Six possessions, six scores
At halftime, ESPN gave Virginia a 99.7% chance of winning and for good reason. Beyond their very generous lead, the Cavaliers had scored on every one of their drives to that point. Now, there’s a multitude of reasons for this, one of them being Duke’s aforementioned paltry defense, but, to give credit where credit is due, Virginia played very well through the first thirty minutes. Brennan Armstrong threw for a staggering 296 yards for the Cavaliers and the team earned 20 first downs in the first half alone, ultimately scoring enough points and possessing the ball with such efficiency that it didn’t really matter what they did in the second half offensively.
2. Five fumbles
Virginia fumbled the ball five times, twice more than Duke, and yet was able to recover all but one of those fumbles. This shows two things: first, the Cavaliers were not completely airtight and had the potential to play a less than stellar game if only the Blue Devils had been able to put more pressure on the offense. Secondly, there were multiple times when Duke might have been able to turn the tide in its favor by exploiting a mistake and gaining an extra possession, but it was unable to capitalize on those opportunities. Even more disappointing was that all four unrecovered fumbles continued drives that ended in scores. Duke desperately needed a lucky break, and four times it was unable to gain even that.
3. Four turnovers
If the Blue Devils struggling to gain yardage wasn’t enough, often those efforts were halted altogether by a bad turnover. Two possessions in a row, a pass from quarterback Gunnar Holmberg landed cleanly in the hands of a Cavalier, and twice Duke fumbled otherwise good opportunities. To add insult to injury, the first three turnovers resulted in scoring drives for Virginia, and the last turnover was a fumble at the 1-yard line in the waning moments of the game when it looked like the Blue Devils might finally get on the board. While it’s not productive to play the what-if game, those four turnovers and their consequences do make you wonder whether the Blue Devils could have avoided such an embarrassing outcome. Still, it’s a chicken-egg scenario, and those turnovers were emblematic of the way Duke played at Virginia.
The Blue Devils face Wake Forest on the road next, but first, they get a bye week. Hopefully, they can use the extra week of practice before their next matchup to wash their hands of this one and start fresh, because the Demon Deacons will be a big hurdle for Duke. Wake Forest is the top dog in the ACC Atlantic, and their undefeated record doesn’t inspire hope for the Blue Devils. Still, Duke can give itself a fighting chance by learning from Saturday and refocusing on its identity as a team.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.