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Third and goal: Late-down conversions, turnover differential crucial in first ACC matchup

Riley Leonard and the Duke offense face their first conference opponent Saturday night.
Riley Leonard and the Duke offense face their first conference opponent Saturday night.

After losing to Kansas last week, 35-27, Duke football is back in Wallace Wade and is looking to grab its first ACC victory in almost two years. The Blue Zone has three keys for its success:

Convert on late downs

Despite being able to move the ball efficiently throughout the loss to Kansas, Duke’s biggest offensive weakness was not being able to pick up first downs when it needed them most. The Blue Devils moved the sticks a third of the time on third down and twice out of their four attempts on fourth, but those two turnovers on downs proved fatal. The first came on Duke’s opening drive of the second half and allowed the Jayhawks to make it a two-possession game with a quick touchdown. The second was in the final minutes as a Riley Leonard pass fell incomplete to end the potential game-tying drive. Due to the potential weather conditions Saturday night in Durham, as well as an improved Virginia defense, the Blue Devils will need to be effective in these critical situations to stay on the field and control the matchup. Virginia’s defense ranks 42nd in the nation in third down conversion percentage at less than 33%, so the Duke offense will certainly be tested when it comes to getting first downs and extending its drives.

Win in the trenches on offense

The Blue Devils will face a stout Cavaliers defense that boasts an impressive front seven. The Duke offense—which combined for a total of 85 rushing yards between its three running backs against Kansas—will look to get the ground game back on track in a wet and windy environment. The Cavaliers unit has allowed 3.5 rush yards per carry and is tied for first in the nation with three other teams—including Duke—in fumble recoveries with seven. While running backs Jordan Waters and Jaylen Coleman will need to impress for the Blue Devils, the focus lies on the experienced group in front of them. The Duke offensive line, anchored by senior captain and center Jacob Monk, has to control the line of scrimmage and generate push against the Virginia front. If the Blue Devils are able succeed and control the ground game, it will be a fun night for offensive coordinator Kevin Johns and the Duke offense.

Capitalize on Virginia’s mistakes

To pick up its first win against the Cavaliers since 2014, Duke will need to take advantage of a mistake-prone Virginia team. This starts with winning the turnover battle. While the Blue Devils under head coach Mike Elko are much improved on this front—they have had a positive turnover margin in all four games this season—the Cavaliers have had their issues. Led by senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, the Virginia offense has turned the ball over 10 times through its first four outings. If Saturday’s game does prove to be a low-scoring affair with both sides struggling to move the ball and run their typical offense, field position will be critical. The Duke defense needs to capitalize on these mistakes and give the ball back to Leonard and the offense in advantageous positions to give the Blue Devils the opportunity to score quickly and get ahead of the Cavaliers.


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