Duke suffered its first defeat of the 2022 season at the hands of Kansas and quarterback Jalon Daniels. How will the Blue Devils respond this weekend when they return home to face Virginia? Here are five things to know as Duke attempts to bounce back from last week’s loss.
Starting conference play
Over the past two seasons, Duke has performed woefully in ACC play. A 2020 victory against Syracuse is the Blue Devil’s lone conference win during this period. Moreover, Duke lost by an average of nearly 32 points in ACC contests last year. However, this is a new team and a new season, and through their first four games, head coach Mike Elko’s bunch have demonstrated resilience and determination.
First year, first ACC game
This Saturday will feature two programs led by new head coaches. Following the unexpected resignation of head coach Bronco Mendenhall last year, Virginia nabbed former Clemson associate head coach, offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Tony Elliot to fill in the role. Neither Elko nor Elliot have previously held head coaching positions, but they are familiar with each other.
“We have crossed paths a lot over the years,” said Elko during his press conference Monday. “I think out of the six years that I was at Wake Forest, he was the offensive coordinator at Clemson when we played them.”
This game could be a major step in the right direction for both programs, as each coach is looking for their first ACC win at the helm, adding to the significance of this matchup.
Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong has the arm talent to be in the upper echelon of college quarterbacks. Last year, Armstrong amassed 31 touchdowns and threw for nearly 4,500 yards, ranking fourth in the nation. He holds a myriad of school records, and the Virginia faithful expected more of the same this year. However, the Cavaliers have yet to work out all the kinks offensively with a completely new system. Nevertheless, Armstrong is capable of torching defenses, and Duke will need to focus on him to prevent a repeat of last week.
“Brennan Armstrong is an exceptional quarterback,” said Elko. “He has a lot of arm strength and throws the ball really well. He is able to do things with his feet and is a really gritty, tough football player.”
Meanwhile, Duke quarterback Riley Leonard has exceeded expectations in his first season as a full-time starter.
“We are really happy with the way he is playing, and he is doing a good job for us, so I think he is just going to continue to grow and develop,” said Elko.
The sophomore quarterback ranks top-20 nationally in completion percentage and yards per completion, demonstrating his ability to throw the ball deep while maintaining elite efficiency. The question is whether Leonard can keep this up against quality ACC defenses, but what’s not in question is his competitiveness and grit.
Duke’s defense struggled against the high-powered Kansas offense last week. There were many missed tackles, and the Jayhawks moved the ball up and down the field with too much ease for the Blue Devils’ liking.
“The biggest thing is communication,” said Elko. “The first thing is Kansas stresses you. They put you in a ton of different sets and motion a lot. The quarterback being a run threat adds even more stress to the whole situation, but we just didn't communicate well enough.”
“It was a lot of poor execution on all levels in our defense,” added captain Dewayne Carter, a junior defensive tackle.
Armstrong may not have the legs of Daniels, but he is still dangerous, scoring nine rushing touchdowns last year. Communication and discipline will be key against a talented Virginia offense. The Cavaliers have a strong group of receivers to keep an eye on. Lavel Davis Jr. and Keytaon Thompson, who lead the team in receptions, stand at 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-5, respectively, and will give the Blue Devils secondary all they can handle.
Virginia is scoring 18.3 points per game this season, down from 34.6 a season ago. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils’ defense would be remiss to overlook a group that ranked third in the country in yards per game last year.
“That group that was terrifying the ACC last year, scoring all those points is the same group of skilled kids,” said Elko. “Not many of them have left. We certainly have a lot of respect for what they are capable of being.”
Weather or not
Both teams may have to change their offensive gameplans in light of Hurricane Ian, with a strong possibility of heavy rain and wind.
The Duke offense has demonstrated the ability to move the ball down the field quickly with deep passes. However, the Blue Devils may need to rely on the backfield tandem of Jordan Waters and Jaylen Coleman if this game turns into a ground-and-pound affair.
“We certainly will make preparations for the worst-case scenario,” said Elko regarding the weather. “We need to make sure we are able to handle whatever is thrown our way."
Virginia’s defense has shown tremendous growth under first-year defensive coordinator John Rudzinski. Last season, the Cavaliers ranked above only Duke in total defense in the ACC. This year has been a different story. The Cavaliers defense has been what has kept them in games, in spite of a struggling offense.
Therefore, it will be imperative for Duke to have success running the ball against a tough Virginia front seven. If the Blue Devils maintain their offensive prowess in spite of the conditions, while holding Armstrong in check, they have a shot at winning their first conference game since 2020.
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Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity first-year and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.