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Five observations from Duke football's first half against Virginia

Duke kicker Matt Alswanger missed his lone field goal attempt of the half.
Duke kicker Matt Alswanger missed his lone field goal attempt of the half.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.—Dirty laundry littered the field during the first half, most of it courtesy of the Blue Devils. Virginia dominated for the first 30 minutes, leaving Duke with a 34-0 deficit to overcome during the second half. Here are our five observations from the start of the action. 

Five observations: 

Kicking changes: After Charlie Ham’s costly struggles against Georgia Tech—he missed two routine field goals in Duke’s 31-27 loss—head coach David Cutcliffe opted for a gameday change. Starting holder and reserve punter Jackson Hubbard took the opening kickoff for the Blue Devils, while graduate transfer Matt Alswanger assumed kicking duties in place of Ham. Alswanger’s Duke career got off to a rough start, however, as he missed a 25-yard opening drive attempt off the left upright.

Wicks takes the field: The status of top Virginia wideout Dontayvion Wicks, who suffered a head injury against Louisville a week ago, was very much in question leading up to Saturday’s matinee matchup, but the star sophomore suited up and got the starting nod for the Cavaliers. Wicks wasted no time at all making his presence known, hauling in passes on the first two plays from scrimmage for a total of 29 yards and wrapping up the half with six catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. 

Coming down Armstrong: It was all sunshine for most of the first quarter Saturday, but with the Cavaliers up 10-0 and time waning in the opening frame, the rain started to come down hard in Scott Stadium and the style of play on both sides changed right away. Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg couldn’t connect on a pair of pass attempts in the first rain-inhibited drive as Virginia’s pass-heavy style shifted slightly more toward the run. But gunslinging quarterback Brennan Armstrong—the FBS leader in passing yards—still ended the half with 296 passing yards as the rain eventually eased up, unfazed by the elements. 

Durant’s usage: After carrying the rock a school-record 43 times in last week’s loss to Georgia Tech, star running back Mataeo Durant was leaned on less in the first half of Saturday’s game. The senior carried the ball 11 times, but still managed 64 yards. As the weather continues to make an impact on the game script, it will certainly be worth noting whether Durant’s role expands in the second half.

One-sided showdown: Coming in, Saturday’s matchup seemed as if it could be a heavyweight battle between the Cavaliers’ ACC-best passing offense and the Blue Devils’ elite rushing attack. Duke had some success on the ground despite the aforementioned limited usage of Durant, but the Blue Devil secondary looked hopeless against Armstrong and his collection of weapons, especially deep in the third level. Armstrong completed deep pass after deep pass, and the Cavaliers thrashed their way to a remarkable 34-point halftime lead.

By the numbers:

  1. 3 opening drive third-down conversions: The Blue Devils didn’t end up converting in the red zone or even scoring any points, but the offense looked impressive to start Saturday. Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg completed two long third down conversion throws before Durant’s 24-yard carry on third down set Duke up in the red zone, but the trend wouldn’t last, as the offense converted just three more third downs before heading back to the locker room to regroup.
  2. 6 penalties for 59 yards: Penalties were a story yet again for the Blue Devils Saturday, as the visitors struggled to refrain from costly violations throughout the first half. In what was certainly the most frustrating of Duke’s flags, Virginia kept an eventual touchdown drive alive after Darrell Harding Jr.’s roughing the kicker penalty on fourth down.
  3. 0 points: There are many figures and statistics to describe Duke’s lowly first half, but none is more important than the harsh truth: after 30 minutes, five drives, 35 plays, or whichever way you feel like quantifying it, the Blue Devils have zero points in a game that many expected to be a shootout. 

A play that mattered:

With the Cavaliers marching down the field after Alswanger’s missed kick, Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong dropped back to pass on a long second down, eventually looking down the left sideline toward senior receiver Billy Kemp. But cornerback Jeremiah Lewis—who is tied for the team lead in interceptions—jumped the passing lane with an incredible amount of open field in front of him, and it seemed as if Duke had caught a break. Instead, the ball bounced off of Lewis’ hands, into the air and into Kemp’s for an improbable first down. The Cavaliers scored on a long pass three plays later to go up multiple scores.

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