Duke football, looking for its first ACC win, hits the road for a matchup at Virginia this weekend. Ahead of Saturday's showdown, join the Blue Zone as we head back into the film room:
Duke football fell to 0-2 in conference play Saturday as Georgia Tech eked out a 31-27 win in the final minute. It was one of those games where a lot went right and an equal amount of things went wrong, but that’s been the story of the season. The Blue Devils are getting consistent offense from key players like quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and running back Mataeo Durant, but mistakes and missed opportunities continue to hold the team back from making a mark in their conference. As the Blue Devils travel to Charlottesville, Va., this weekend, it’s less a question of whether Duke will be good or bad, but rather if the good will outweigh the bad by enough to return home with an ACC win.
It’s possible that the Blue Devils will pull off a victory against the Cavaliers, but it will be a steep climb, as Virginia has a lot of momentum after two straight conference wins against Miami and Louisville. However, for as much momentum as the Cavaliers have, they are similar to Duke in that they have some eye-popping strengths as a team as well as some eye-popping weaknesses.
Perhaps the most head-turning of any of their qualities lies in quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who leads college football in passing yards and is averaging a ridiculous 410 yards a game. He’s the Cavaliers’ not-so-secret secret weapon, and for good reason. Obviously, every team expects the league leader in passing yards to be a formidable threat, but Armstrong can still surprise by taking over a game like he did when he almost single-handedly strong-armed (forgive me) the Cardinals into submission Saturday in the fourth quarter.
You can really just play the whole highlight video to see what Armstrong is capable of, but watch this clip in particular to see his patience in getting a good read, his ability to find space and his use of awareness and strength to fire off an 18-yard pass under pressure.
Duke’s capability of containing Armstrong is suspect at best, as they currently yield the second-most passing yards per game in the ACC. The Blue Devils’ secondary has struggled all season, and the Cavaliers will just make their job harder by fielding a large receiving corps that can share the load. With so many options at Armstrong’s disposal, the Duke pass defense will have to be airtight and operate as a cohesive unit in order to avoid plays like Georgia Tech’s long first touchdown a week ago.
However, Duke has its own offensive weapon for the Cavaliers to be worried about, as it’s no secret by this point that the Blue Devils love to run the ball. Durant currently ranks fourth nationwide in rushing yards, and it has been over a month since he last ran for less than 100 yards. Expect that the game plan for the Blue Devils won’t change much by this weekend, with Durant likely shouldering considerable offensive responsibility.
Across the line of scrimmage, the Cavaliers’ rush defense is poor, giving up an average of 201.2 yards per game, good for worst in the ACC by a rate of nearly 30 yards. While Virginia held Louisville to a mere 45 rushing yards in the first half, the Cavaliers were back to their old ways after halftime, giving up 116 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in the third quarter alone. The potential for solid rush defense is there, but Virginia will likely struggle to contain Duke’s well-oiled rushing machine come Saturday and will be easily broken down with aggressive plays, such as the one in this clip. Watch how Louisville running back Hassan Hall is able to dart between defenders for a 52-yard touchdown run.
From the looks of it, this should be a high-scoring game of two talented—yet flawed—teams with both trying to outdo the other to make up for their own defensive liabilities. Both the Blue Devils and the Cavaliers rank near the top of the conference in total offense and near the bottom for defense, so the winner will likely be decided by whoever can field the most explosive attack Saturday, which either team could accomplish.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.