“Critical” is probably the most apt word to describe Duke football’s matchup against Virginia this Saturday.
The Blue Devils travel to Charlottesville, Va., to take on the Cavaliers in the most important of games. Duke currently sits at 3-3 and 0-2 in conference play. To be eligible for most bowl games, a team must have six wins, five of which must come against FBS opponents. Duke only has two such wins and a loss against Virginia would not be a step in the right direction when there are only six games left in the season.
The Blue Devils’ game against Georgia Tech came down to the wire, ending in heartbreaking fashion, and to avoid a repeat of that disaster, they’ll have to make some adjustments.
Here are five things to look for as Duke heads back on the road to take on Virginia in its third ACC game of the season.
A battle of the quarterbacks
This game is bound to be an entertaining one, airmail wise. Both Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong and Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg have had impressive campaigns so far, and all signs point to neither of them slowing down.
Armstrong is ranked first nationally with 2460 passing yards, besting Holmberg by just over 800 yards this season. But that’s not to say the Blue Devils don’t have their own budding star quarterback in their own right. Holmberg is quietly leading the ACC in completion rate with his 72.5% mark, and he’s got an edge on Armstrong’s 65.1% completion rate.
While Armstrong can air it out, Holmberg can throw incredibly accurately. As a result, it is clear that the passing attack will be an offensive weapon used by both squads to move the ball up the field.
If Duke hopes to win this game, Holmberg needs to continue his streak of connecting with his receivers. But to truly compete with Armstrong and Virginia, he’ll need to increase the volume he throws too. Whether or not he’s able to do so remains to be seen.
‘The little things’
Right off the bat in his opening statement during a press conference this week, head coach David Cutcliffe discussed the importance of the “little things” that went wrong in the game against Georgia Tech.
“There’s no rocket science there,” Cutcliffe said. “It fully falls on my shoulders to have a team prepared to do the little things that win games.”
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But this Blue Devil team has struggled to do so all year.
Cutcliffe emphasized the importance of the “little things” before the game against North Carolina, and Duke proceeded to decidedly lose that game. This followed with seemingly no improvement in this aspect of the game against the nail-biter at home against Georgia Tech.
Duke desperately needs to solidify these “little things,” such as reducing penalties and lining up quickly and properly on defense, to stand a chance against Virginia. At this point, those little things have turned into big things, and they are costing the Blue Devils games every week.
The kicking game
Offensively speaking, against Georgia Tech, Duke put up a solid performance. Holmberg completed 75% of his passes for 292 passing yards and Mataeo Durant added 152 rushing yards on 43 carries, breaking the school record for single-game carries along the way.
But all of that wasn’t enough. Losing by just four points on a late fourth-quarter drive executed to perfection by Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims, all eyes go back to the two missed field goals earlier in the game.
Blue Devil kicker Charlie Ham only completed 50% of his field goal attempts, costing Duke the very six points that could have saved it. Ham has historically been a beacon of reliability for the Blue Devils but despite only missing two field goals a season ago, he has already missed four this year.
Keep the intensity going all game long
This season, Duke has had a problem with playing entire games consistently. Against Northwestern, the Blue Devils scored 30 points in the first half only to score nothing in the second. Against Kansas, the story was flipped, with the offensive dominance appearing in the second half. And against North Carolina, Duke had a great first quarter nearly holding the Tar Heels scoreless, but that ended up with a lopsided score.
The game against Georgia Tech was a much needed improvement. The Blue Devils scored in all four quarters, keeping the game close throughout, ultimately taking the lead in the fourth.
And then disaster struck.
With 1:42 left in the game, Georgia Tech was able drive down the field and put the ball in the end zone, sealing the Blue Devils’ fate. All of this is to say that Duke needs to play with a high level of intensity at all times—even at the very end.
Cutcliffe said that this sort of intensity and effort has been there from his team on the practice field, though.
“Focus and intensity has to be there. It was there the week before that, the week before we played North Carolina ,” Cutcliffe said. “You can’t improve upon the effort and the toughness this team has. I respect the heck out of those guys. We got to find that magic that does put us in position to win games in the fourth quarter.”
Duke will need to bring this intensity that Cutcliffe has seen in practice to their game in Charlottesville, along with a side order of fourth-quarter magic.
An explosive defense
A fired-up defense will be key to stopping Virginia’s passing attack. That may prove to be a bit of an issue, though, with quite a bit of the starters in the secondary nursing injuries.
When asked how he would respond to the banged up secondary, Cutcliffe said, “I guess you start every morning with a good prayer. That may make a lot of sense.”
Cutcliffe also said that it would be harder to stay in coverage against Virginia’s quarterback.
“He’s mobile,” Cutcliffe said. “That increases the hardship of staying in coverage if he breaks the pocket because he sees downfield well, he’s very accurate.”
Among other things, according to Cutcliffe, Duke will need to maintain a consistent pass rush, have vision on receivers, and especially if Armstrong is throwing the ball well, keep the run game at bay.
“We have to play tight defense,” safety Lummie Young IV said. “Our [defensive] line has to get after their offensive line so we can rattle him and make him make mistakes.”