5 observations and more from Duke football's first half against Virginia

Jordan Moore runs through traffic in the first half of Duke's clash with Virginia.
Jordan Moore runs through traffic in the first half of Duke's clash with Virginia.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Duke entered Saturday’s matchup with struggling Virginia looking to respond from a heartbreaking double-overtime loss against North Carolina a week ago. However, the Cavaliers have made a good account of themselves in the first half of football at Scott Stadium, and both teams are tied at 10-10 heading into the locker room:

Five observations

Battle of the backup quarterbacks: Like many teams across the country, both Duke and Virginia have dealt with injuries at the most important position this season. For the Blue Devils, Grayson Loftis made his third career start as Riley Leonard and Henry Belin IV remain sidelined with injuries. The freshman had an efficient first half, going 8-for-14 passing for 81 yards and a touchdown to Jalon Calhoun.

For the home team, freshman Anthony Colandrea got the nod, as starting quarterback Tony Muskett remains out due to an ankle injury. He finished the half 8-for-12 for 89 yards passing while also adding 39 yards on the ground, including a sweet 30-yard gain on a quarterback draw. 

Field position battle: In a game involving two inexperienced signal callers, starting out with solid field position has been key to helping extend drives and giving the freshman quarterbacks an advantage. Luckily for Duke, it has a Ray Guy semifinalist in graduate student Porter Wilson, who has been excellent at punting the football all year long. This was no different Saturday as Wilson kicked the ball three times for a total of 126 yards, helping pin the Cavaliers in their own territory. In addition, Virginia did not help itself out on Wilson’s second punt, getting whistled for a block-in-the-back penalty that turned a decent return into a drive starting from its own 12-yard line.

For Duke, a change was required at the kick returner position, as the injured Moore also traditionally returns kickoffs for the Blue Devils. In his place stepped freshman running back Marquise Collins, who got his first-ever game action and made an instant impact, taking a short kick out for a 15-yard return, setting up Duke on its own 30-yard line.

Secondary mixup: For the last several weeks, Duke fans have grown accustomed to seeing the same quintet in the defensive backfield, as Chandler Rivers, Al Blades Jr., Jaylen Stinson, Brandon Johnson and Terry Moore have established themselves as the Blue Devils’ preferred secondary. However, due to an injury to Moore and an apparent coaching decision, two alternate faces entered the starting mix, as cornerback Joshua Pickett took the field in place of Blades and graduate transfer Jeremiah Lewis filled Moore’s role. 

Malik Washington show: Coming into this week, it was obvious who would be the focus of Duke’s defensive gameplan, as Malik Washington has established himself as one of, if not the best receiver in the ACC. The Northwestern transfer has been excellent in almost every game this season, amassing 1,199 yards leading up to this contest. The graduate student was his usual self Saturday, hauling in four receptions for 65 yards including a 34-yard touchdown where he showed his explosive ability after the catch. With that grab, Washington also cemented himself in Virginia football history, becoming the program’s single-season receiving yards leader. 

Feed Jordan Moore: At a Monday media availability, Duke head coach Mike Elko made it clear that one of the priorities for the coaching staff was to find ways to get junior wideout Jordan Moore the ball. They did just that in the first half in Charlottesville, as he was the target of the first three passes from Loftis, all resulting in completions for a total of 27 yards, key to Duke’s early momentum after the Loyola Blakefield product put together three touchdowns in an impressive performance against North Carolina last weekend. He finished the half with 39 yards on four receptions.

By the numbers:

Third-down defense: Throughout the season, the Duke defense has been known to employ a bend-don’t-break mentality, as the Blue Devils sport one of the nation’s best red-zone defenses. However, this mantra on Saturday also became applicable to third-down situations, where Elko’s unit has been surprisingly mediocre all season, ranking 79th in the FBS in third-down defensive conversion percentage. In the first half Saturday, these woes were not present largely, as the Blue Devils halted five of Virginia’s seven third-down opportunities. The only exceptions were two consecutive conversions on its first scoring drive.

Penalty discrepancy: During Elko’s tenure, Duke has generally been known as a disciplined squad, seldom committing unnecessary penalties. In the first half, this held true, as the Blue Devils committed zero penalties. However, their opponents did not get such a fortunate whistle, as Virginia was called for eight penalties for 74 yards, including a facemask on Duke’s first scoring drive that set it up within the 10-yard line and a brutal three penalties, on one set of downs alone, forcing the Cavaliers to punt from their own 19-yard line after failing to convert a third-and-23. 

Rushing attack: With two freshmen under center, it was clear that both teams wanted to pound the rock, with both Duke and Virginia having talented stables of running backs. Unsurprisingly, then, both squads found success running the ball early. Duke racked up 94 total yards rushing, as Jordan Waters paced the Blue Devil attack with nine carries for 42 yards, while Kobe Pace was the lead back for the Cavaliers, tallying 28 yards on nine carries to go with Colandrea’s 39-yard mark. 

A play that mattered:

After Virginia went down for a score on its second drive of the contest, Duke needed to respond quickly. The Blue Devils went to work promptly, with Loftis firing several passes to Moore for first downs while also leaning on the strong ground game to pick up yards. However, disaster struck for Loftis and the offense once they reached the Cavaliers’ red zone, as Waters coughed up a fumble that bounced five yards farther into Virginia territory and was recovered by the opposing team, costing Duke a chance at a prompt response, one it did not avenge until a second quarter touchdown grab from Jalon Calhoun. 


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