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5 things to know before Duke football's final road tilt against the struggling Cavaliers

Running back Jaylen Coleman tries to break a tackle against North Carolina.
Running back Jaylen Coleman tries to break a tackle against North Carolina.

It was a brutal ending to Duke’s annual Victory Bell matchup against now-No. 22 North Carolina, as the Blue Devils fell in double overtime after failing to complete a 2-point conversion. Now, the squad from Durham will hit the road again as it travels to Virginia to take on the Cavaliers. Here are five things to know heading into the penultimate matchup of the regular season.

Lofty aspirations

After a challenging beginning to freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis’ career as a starter, the third-stringer managed to bounce back nicely against the Tar Heels. He threw for 189 yards on a 16-for-28 clip, leading a fourth-quarter comeback that forced the game into overtime. While the numbers themselves are certainly not perfect, especially in comparison to typical starter Riley Leonard, they are solid at the very least. Against Virginia, Loftis will need to continue that upward trajectory with another quality start Saturday. Virginia is not a highly-rated squad like North Carolina, but the Cavaliers are certainly nothing to be ignored.

If the rookie signal caller can put together another solid performance as a game manager, then the Blue Devil offense will be able to execute like it did against the Tar Heels. Head coach Mike Elko knows that Loftis played well in Chapel Hill, and has confidence that he will continue to grow.

“[We] wanted to make sure that [we] put him in positions where he could be successful,” said Elko in Monday’s media availability. “I think now that you've gotten two starts out of the way, and you feel comfortable with where he is, he's gotten his feet really settled… Now, I think you can just kind of open the playbook up and go.”

A tale of two quarterbacks

On the other side of the ball, Virginia has had its own interesting story at the quarterback position. The Cavaliers have seen two different quarterbacks put together solid performances, as both freshman Anthony Colandrea and senior Tony Muskett have attempted more than 140 passes. While Colandrea has led the squad as of late while Muskett has been injured, the Monmouth transfer has had a good season as well. It will be interesting to see how the Virginia offense incorporates one, or both, of the signal callers into the offense Saturday, provided Muskett is good to go. 

“[The Cavaliers] are playing two quarterbacks,” said Elko. “And both of them have played at a really good level this year. I think they're an offense that is very dangerous.”

In the secondary

One area where Duke struggled last week was on pass defense. Tar Heel quarterback Drake Maye is admittedly a well above average passer, but the game he had Saturday night is remarkable by any standard. The redshirt sophomore threw for 342 yards, completing 28 of his 43 pass attempts for one touchdown through the air. 

The Blue Devil secondary also struggled to contain North Carolina’s receivers. The most impactful wideout was junior Devontez Walker, who put together a dominant performance Saturday evening. He racked up an astounding 162 receiving yards, with a long of 48 on one play. Now against Virginia, another talented and athletic receiver will take center stage. Senior Malik Washington has led the charge for the Cavaliers all year, and he will look to feast on a Duke defense that was torn up against the Tar Heels last week. On the year, the undersized but speedy receiver has put together a massive 1,199-yard receiving season, along with seven touchdowns. 

“On offense, it starts with Malik Washington, he's playing at an elite level, obviously very dynamic, catching the football, running routes,” Elko said, “But also using them in the screen game and some of the jet sweep game and really finding ways to get him the football.”

Pound the ground

The Cavaliers have allowed a relatively weak 180.3 rushing yards per game, and the Blue Devil offense is at a remarkably similar average of 179.9. In the matchup between the two squads, controlling the ground game will be integral to victory. If Duke can rack up the rushing yards, the Blue Devils will be able to control the ball and keep the Virginia offense off the field. 

While Loftis has proven that he is capable of being serviceable, last week Elko had wide receiver Jordan Moore take a few snaps in the wildcat formation. 

“You're starting to see some different types of run structures and run boxes, because we've got a new quarterback, and so trying to create an extra guy sometimes, and is that something that can help us, we'll certainly utilize it,” said Elko, “We're gonna try to find ways to let Jordan Moore impact the football game. We think he's a huge impact player.”

Play smart

Ultimately, Virginia is probably a weaker football team than Duke. The Blue Devils have performed better both in and out of the conference this season, with stronger personnel in most of their positions. Despite that, the Cavaliers have proven this year that they can give any squad a game. They came out on top in a 31-27 matchup against the Tar Heels earlier in the season. That being said, they are also volatile. Virginia has lost some rough games against teams like Boston College and Maryland. For Duke to come out on top, the primary aim should be to remain composed heading into the road matchup.

“[The Cavaliers] have played some really good football this year, I think they've gotten better every single week,” said Elko. “We certainly anticipate getting their absolute best, and it's going to take our best to go out there and get the result that we want.”


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