Each week, I’ll (hopefully) talk to a beat writer who covers Duke’s opponent. Today we have Andrew Ramspacher, who covers the Cavaliers for the Charlottesville Daily Progress. Links to his work can be found here. Andrew is also on Twitter at @ARamspacher.
1. From a distance, it looks like UVA's season is on the verge of slipping away. Is there any sense of panic amongst players and coaches?
They've played the patience card and they've stated that they're not pressing, but it's not totally convincing. When you go 4-8 in 2012, basically clean house on the staff in the offseason in an effort to turn things around and then start 2013 2-4, there is cause for alarm.
But there is something to the patience thing. Of course, UVa is six games into the debut season for offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators. The record doesn't indicate immediate success with the new systems and that's because it hasn't been a collective quick fix. On offense, the Cavs are dealing with the growing pains of a first-year starting QB. On defense, UVa's gone from a read-and-react system to a blitz-heavy scheme. On special teams, UVa lost its starting kicker two weeks ago and has already switched return personnel.
It's a process. Virginia fans just don't want to accept that right now.
2. What have been some of the main culprits behind the Cavaliers' struggles?
Like mentioned earlier, the adjustment to three new schemes hasn't come easily. QB David Watford played his best game against Maryland, which is an encouraging sign, but Virginia still lost because it only converted two of six red zone trips into touchdowns. New OC Steve Fairchild wants to be a power football team and, with some O-line adjustment, they've finally accomplished that (see 510 rushing yards from Kevin Parks). But, with the exception of the Maryland trip, the passing balance hasn't been there. Watford hasn't had much help. In a 14-3 loss to Pitt, his receivers dropped 10 passes. TEN!
Under new DC Jon Tenuta, that bunch was dominant in three of the first four games (they don't talk about Oregon anymore). But against Ball State and Maryland, the defense has stepped back. The front four remains phenomenal, but the back-end has been exposed. The combination of Ball State QB Keith Wenning and Maryland QB Caleb Rowe torched UVa's secondary for 678 yards.
But the main culprit, like any team that struggles, has been ball security. Virginia is 109th nationally in turnover margin (minus-5).
3. Duke's players said there's a bit of a rivalry with Virginia (no doubt it helps that the Blue Devils have had success against the Cavaliers under Cutcliffe, going 4-1). Do you get a sense that Virginia's players also consider it a rivalry-type game with an extra edge?
I think that stems from the 2011 game when things got chippy courtesy of UVa corner Chase Minnifield and his choice words for Cutcliffe. He brought up the Mannings and yada, yada, yada ... the Blue Devils weren't happy.
But that was Minnifield's senior year. From what I recall, the 2012 game didn't feature the same intense vibe. I'd be surprised if this year's game has anything extra to it. It might be a rivalry for Duke, but every game is a rivalry right now for Virginia. On a three-game skid, the Cavs just want to beat anybody. We asked them about the recent Duke dominance of this series and the UVa players brushed it off as another season, another game.
4. Any bright spots this year?
Kevin Parks is on pace to be UVa's first 1,000-yard rusher in a decade. Monster 6-foot-7 defensive tackle Brent Urban sees his NFL stock rise with every game, although he'll miss Saturday with a "lower extremity" injury. And, well, the Cavs did beat BYU in the opener — somehow.
5. Who are three Virginia players Duke fans should be watching out for on Saturday?
Tight end Jake McGee made a habit of one-handed catches last season. This year, he's become more of a complete TE with added weight and improved blocking skills. He's coming off the best game of his career — eight catches, 114 yards, TD.
Defensive end Eli Harold was the gem of UVa’s 2012 recruiting class. His freshman year was OK (two sacks, seven tackles for loss), but his sophomore year’s been All-ACC worthy. Harold has 5.5 sacks and two more tackles for loss. He’s a blur off the edge.
UVa’s best corner — Demetrious Nicholson — won’t play Saturday with a toe injury. His replacement is freshman Tim Harris. Harris got the start against Maryland and made five tackles, including one for loss. However, he also had a sure interception bounce off his hands and into the grasp of Stefon Diggs for a big 37-yard gain. If he draws the Jamison Crowder assignment, Harris’ play will be key against Duke.
Thanks to Andrew for his time. Look for my preview and prediction of the matchup Saturday morning.