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Five things to key in on for Duke football's matchup against Virginia Tech

Junior wide receiver Eli Pancol hauled in three catches for 42 yards last week against Pittsburgh.
Junior wide receiver Eli Pancol hauled in three catches for 42 yards last week against Pittsburgh.

With six minutes left in the second quarter against Pittsburgh, Duke held a shocking 19-17 lead. That was before Pittsburgh found its stride, scoring 20 straight points to go up 37-19. Unable to recover, the game finished 54-29, a college football scorigami. 

Coming off another disappointing performance, the Blue Devils look to bounce back as they travel to Blacksburg, Virg., to take on Virginia Tech in what should be one of the more winnable matchups of this year’s ACC schedule. 

Here are five things to look for in this Saturday’s matchup with the Hokies.

Run Mataeo, Run 

If there is one thing Duke can always rely on, it is Mataeo Durant. Despite the continued issue with ball security, he always seems to produce when the team needs it most. Just last week, he hit 1,000 rushing yards on the season, an extremely impressive mark with three games remaining on the schedule. Durant remains top 10 in rushing yards and sits at 12th in all-purpose yards in the NCAA. He is a star by all means and should be played as such.

Thankfully for the Blue Devils, they are entering a favorable matchup with one of the few ACC teams with a lower-ranked rush defense than them. Duke sits at 102nd in rush defense, giving up a staggering 183.8 yards per game, however, Virginia Tech sits at 105th, giving up 185.8 yards per game. If this matchup doesn’t scream ground and pound, then I’m not sure what does. Especially entering the matchup with uncertainty surrounding quarterback play, look for the game plan to be extremely run-heavy this weekend. 

The backup plan

After coming off the field last week due to injury, quarterback Gunnar Holmberg’s status remains up in the air for the coming matchup. Cutcliffe did not rule him out at his weekly press conference Monday, especially if Holmberg is able to pracitce this week. Freshman Riley Leonard has been the guy called upon by head coach David Cutcliffe thus far, and if Holmberg is unable to go, it will likely be Leonard calling the signals under center. 

“We’ve been working with Riley since he got here,” receiver Eli Pancol said. “They could put anybody in there really. Expectations are just the same: to go out and win.”

For someone like Leonard, still in his first season at this level of play, that vote of confidence from his receivers and coaches should be huge as he steps onto the field. In the very few on-field reps he’s seen, the play has been somewhat shaky. Leonard has a 51.6% completion percentage, and from a viewer’s standpoint, there was a clear shift in playcalling to more quarterback runs when he stepped onto the field. As he potentially takes more first-team reps in practice this week, Leonard may look to build even more chemistry with his receivers in order to maintain the passing standard that was set by Holmberg. 

Find some defense

Similar to Duke, Virginia Tech has had a few outings this season where it has had very little scoring. In games against Pittsburgh and Boston College, it was held to just seven and three points, respectively. Coming out against the Blue Devils, the Hokies will have looked at past results showing that teams have poured on the offense in big numbers against a defense with multiple weak spots. However, if Duke truly believes it can win out, it will have to maintain the trend of stifling a struggling offense.

Duke was able to keep Heisman candidate Kenny Pickett relatively quiet for much of the first half, a large part of why it was able to hold a temporary lead. However, when things began to fall apart on the defensive side, the game got out of hand. For a team that may not be the same without Holmberg, fixing up the defense will be important. 

One of the main concerns should be the team’s tackling. At times this season, there have been plays that require three or four Blue Devils to take down one player, allowing for more yards than necessary. Players should not be getting dragged along for five extra yards just because they need help to bring their man down. Pay close attention to the way the Blue Devils attack the ball carrier; if they are able to bring them down fast, it could be a positive sign of things to come.

Cancel out the environment

“I love playing there, it reminds me of freshman year,” Eli Pancol said when asked about the Blacksburg crowd. “I can’t wait for it.”

Echoing that same sentiment, defensive tackle Gary Smith III said, “I don’t feel like it will cause any troubles—I’m actually excited to play there.”

Playing at Wallace Wade, a stadium that often has a large number of its seats empty, is a much different experience than going to Virginia Tech. The Hokie fans are known to show up in big numbers in an effort to give their side that extra advantage to take down opponents. 

Duke has had a situation like that already this year. Wake Forest had an estimated 80% of its undergraduate student population attend the game against the Blue Devils, a matchup that ended in a lopsided victory for the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest is a very good football team and it is more likely that was the reason they won, however, the energy of a crowd cannot be discounted in terms of the momentum provided to a team. It is crucial for the Blue Devils to tune out the noise. Expect to see the veterans on the team, like captains Jake Bobo and DeWayne Carter, leading the way as Duke looks to storm into a harsh environment and steal a win. 

Remain confident

“I haven’t seen anyone duck their heads,” said Gary Smith when asked about the locker room after some of the tougher losses this season. "We’re going to get through it. Tough times don’t last, tough people, do.”

Despite the disappointing performances by the team in multiple games this season, the team still believes that it can come into any game and win. From an outside perspective, the Blue Devils could be right. The last three games of the season are not the high-level competition they just faced in Wake Forest or Pitt. 

“We want to win just as badly as [the fans] want to win," Pancol said. "We’re gonna come out here and make sure we get it done.”

Anyone who has been around the sport will tell you all about self-fulfilling prophecies; if you come into a game with the mindset that you have no chance, then you are probably right. However, if you remain confident, then you put yourself in the position to win. As the Blue Devils step out onto the field in Blacksburg this week, look for that mindset in their body language. 


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