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Scouting the opponent: Duke football must contain Malik Washington in road contest against Virginia

Duke's Jaylen Stinson (2) and Tre Freeman (12) combine to tackle North Carolina's Omarion Hampton in Saturday's game.
Duke's Jaylen Stinson (2) and Tre Freeman (12) combine to tackle North Carolina's Omarion Hampton in Saturday's game.

In a double-overtime thriller last Saturday, Duke lost a heartbreaker, surrendering the Victory Bell once again to rival North Carolina to move to 6-4 on the season. Now, the Blue Devils will look to close out the season strong in order to finish 8-4, an identical record to last year. The first step of that mission is a road trip to Charlottesville, Va., as Duke will travel to face Virginia Saturday. 

Let’s do a deep dive on the Cavaliers to see what makes them dangerous.

After a 3-7 record in head coach Tony Elliott’s first season in 2022, Virginia has not been any more fortunate in this campaign, sputtering to a 2-8 start in 2023, with one win coming over FCS opponent William & Mary. However, the record does not tell the whole story of the Cavaliers’ season, as the other win was against the Tar Heels, one of many games this year when Virginia took a superior team to the wire. Most recently, the Cavaliers gave then-No.11 Louisville all it could handle, but fell to the Cardinals 31-24 for their eighth loss of the season. These results prove that despite being an ACC bottom dweller, Virginia could easily hand Duke a loss this weekend if it is not careful.

“We've got to bounce back and respond, and I believe we will. We're going to Charlottesville to take on a really talented UVA team,” head coach Mike Elko said at Monday’s media availability. “I know the record is what it is. But this group is playing at a much higher level than they did last year. You can see the togetherness, you can see that they're really bought into what Tony's trying to do.”

Largely due to injuries, Virginia has employed a two-quarterback system throughout the season. Elliott brought in Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett to lead the Cavalier offense, and the senior has made six starts this season, including the 31-27 win against North Carolina when he went 20-for-30, passing for 208 yards. 

But in Muskett’s absence, freshman signal caller Anthony Colandrea has stepped in to take the reins. The St. Petersburg, Fla., native has had ups and downs through his six games played, but certainly has shown a dynamic playmaking ability. Against the Cardinals, Colandrea was 20-for-31 passing for 314 yards and added 89 yards on the ground, showing the youngster’s ability to compete against top defenses. However, the freshman has thrown an interception in every game in which he has had more than seven attempts, a trend Duke will look to continue.

The Virginia run game has largely been handled by committee this season, with a trio of running backs complementing Colandrea in the backfield. Perris Jones leads the group in terms of yardage, tallying 393 yards on 5.2 yards per carry so far in 2023. However, the senior suffered an unfortunate injury against Louisville that will keep him sidelined against the Blue Devils, leaving the Cavaliers without their top back Saturday. In his place, the offense will rely on the tandem of Kobe Pace and Mike Hollins to steady the ground game this week. Both backs have had solid roles this season, with the Clemson transfer Pace getting a team-best 96 carries while Hollins leads the group in touchdowns with seven. The Blue Devil defense will likely see a heavy dose of both players this weekend, as Elliott may opt to try and control the clock to aid his freshman quarterback.

In the air, the Cavaliers practically only have two players that have made a major impact this year. Junior wideout Malachi Fields has enjoyed a nice breakout year for Virginia, already hauling in 48 catches for 648 yards, with both marks being career highs. His 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame could certainly cause problems for Duke as he gives Colandrea a solid deep threat. However, the name to know at wideout, not only for the Blue Devils but for fans of football in general, is Malik Washington.

Washington joined the Cavaliers after four solid years at Northwestern, but the graduate student has been a revelation in his first year in the ACC. The Lawrenceville, Ga., native has already smashed all of his career bests during his year in Virginia, already tallying 88 receptions for 1,199 yards and seven touchdowns, at times singlehandedly carrying the Cavalier pass game. If you simply look at the stats, it is hard to argue that Washington is not the best receiver in the conference, as he leads the ACC in receiving yards by more than 400. The wideout has game-breaking potential, as evidenced by his 10-catch, 170-yard and two-touchdown outing against N.C. State. Duke will undoubtedly key in on Washington all week, and will look to hold him under 100 yards for only the third time this year.

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

While the offense overall isn’t particularly impressive, the defense is undoubtedly the weakest part of Virginia’s team. The Cavaliers rank dead last in points allowed in the conference, surrendering 32.3 points per game. The passing defense is marginally better than the rushing defense which ranks as the ACC’s third worst with 180.3 yards allowed per game, a weakness Duke will be happy to exploit courtesy of graduate running back Jordan Waters. 

“Defensively, they've kind of got a mixed group. You've got a lot of guys that have played a lot of football,” Elko said. “And then you got some really young, talented players intertwined in that. And so I think, second year in the system, operating at a much higher level and playing this thing really well.”

While Virginia has not been spectacular on defense, it still has a few standouts. Chief among them is junior safety Jonas Sanker, who has been reliable on the back end all season long. The local product has amassed 90 tackles on the year, good for third in the league, while also having eight passes defensed. Sanker has also shown big play capabilities, forcing two fumbles. While some of his stats are likely due to a weak front seven, Sanker is still worth keeping an eye on Saturday. 

The Blue Devils are hunting for a bounce-back win, but an emotional letdown against an inferior team is certainly a possibility against Virginia. If Duke leans on its strengths and finds a way to slow down Washington, it should improve to 7-4 Saturday afternoon. 


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