As Duke football looks to avoid a sixth consecutive ACC loss as they take on Virginia Tech on the road this Saturday, the Blue Zone analyzes some film to preview the matchup:
Saturday’s matchup between Duke and Virginia Tech is shaping up to be an interesting one, as both teams suddenly have question marks under center. Starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg went down late in the first half as the Blue Devils fell to Pittsburgh 54-29, while Hokies starter Braxton Burmeister exited his team’s 17-3 loss to Boston College after a hard hit in the second quarter. With neither player ruled out and the quarterback situation up in the air, let’s dive into the starting candidates for Saturday’s contest.
By now, Holmberg’s game should be familiar to Duke fans after more than two months of play. The graduate student’s strengths and weaknesses have been clear. With passing accuracy and both the mobility and IQ to be a good runner, Holmberg is well-suited to his role as a game-manager in Duke’s rush-heavy offense. His shortcomings, however, have taken a front seat since conference play began, as his hesitancy to throw the ball downfield has cost the Blue Devils when a spark has been needed.
Still, it came as a blow for Duke to see Holmberg injured last weekend. In his stead, head coach David Cutcliffe looked to freshman quarterback Riley Leonard, who saw his first meaningful playing time of the season after a pair of brief second-half stints in blowout losses to Virginia and Wake Forest. The Fairhope, Ala., native looked comfortable in his prolonged run, but the Blue Devils mustered just a single second-half touchdown on a Leonard screen pass to running back Mataeo Durant.
Leonard may not have accomplished much through the air Saturday, but perhaps that’s forgivable given the Duke offense’s recent struggles and Holmberg’s unexpected injury. Where Leonard did shine was in the running game: he tallied 31 yards on 11 carries and looked strong, confident and just the tiniest bit reckless beyond the line of scrimmage.
If Holmberg can get back to practice before Saturday’s matchup, he should start against the Hokies. Otherwise, one would have to assume that Leonard will get his first career start under center.
Virginia Tech is in a similar situation with Burmeister and backup quarterback Knox Kadum. Head coach Justin Fuente is yet to provide a true update on which player will get the nod Saturday, but a sufficiently healthy Burmeister would, like Holmberg, be a no-brainer.
Burmeister is not your typical quarterback, or even your stereotypical run-first college quarterback. The redshirt junior is a tough, crafty runner who gives out hits just as often as he takes them. That style of play can hurt him, on occasion, as it did this weekend when a hit at the end of a scramble took him out of the game with an apparent rib injury.
Burmeister’s style of play translates well to a matchup against the Blue Devils, who have done a poor job of containing opposing quarterbacks on the run over the course of the past few seasons. When these two teams met a year ago, Burmeister performed well in the Hokies’ 38-31 win, passing for a modest 163 yards on just nine completions but rushing for a pair of touchdowns as well. Watch below how the La Jolla, Calif., native use both power and agility to get in the end zone:
If Burmeister is a no-go, it is likely that Fuente will call upon Kadum, a redshirt freshman who, like Leonard, played his first meaningful football for Virginia Tech in his team’s most recent defeat. Kadum played mistake-free football against the Eagles, but did not offer much more as the Hokies struggled to get anything going on offense. Virginia Tech’s 34 rushes doubled its 17 pass attempts, but Kadum looked capable on rollouts and short passes like the one below. If he winds up under center Saturday, it isn’t likely that Fuente will ask much more of him than that.
Regardless of the weekend’s fluid starting quarterback situation, both offenses will look more or less the same as usual come Saturday. Cutcliffe noted as much about the Virginia Tech offense in his Monday afternoon press conference, citing the fact that the rest of the offense remains more or less intact, and Duke’s attack should also continue to revolve around Durant and the rushing game. Still, keep an eye out for further developments as the week goes on, and be ready for anything—and anyone—when these two teams meet Saturday.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.