Sports

Why Virginia has dominated Duke lately and what the Blue Devils need to do to stop it

Duke quarterback Daniel Jones (17) is tackled by Virginia's Quin Blanding (3) in the second quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday.
Duke quarterback Daniel Jones (17) is tackled by Virginia's Quin Blanding (3) in the second quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The Duke Blue Devils have done plenty of winning since the last time they defeated Virginia.

Now they want to return the Cavaliers to their list of conquests on the football field.

Duke faces Virginia on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium riding a three-game losing streak in the annual series.

The Blue Devils last beat Virginia on Oct. 18, 2014, when they won 20-13 in Durham.

Duke has won 27 games since then. That includes two wins over rival North Carolina, a pair of bowl wins -- the first the school has had since 1961 -- and even a win at Notre Dame.

It also includes this season’s 5-1 start.

With a win over Virginia (4-2) on Saturday, the Blue Devils can achieve bowl eligibility for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe addresses the chippy play during Duke's 28-14 win at Georgia Tech on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. One Georgia Tech player was ejected for fighting and a Duke player received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

But Duke has to push aside the demons that have caused losses in each of its last three meetings with a Virginia program that’s gone 12-25 over the last three seasons.

“They past couple of years I just think they wanted it more,” Duke redshirt senior offensive lineman Zach Harmon said “Not taking any credit away from Virginia. They deserved those wins. But we definitely felt we could have had a chance to win. We could have played better. I think it’s the same setup this year. We think we should win. We match up well. We are looking forward to the challenge.”

Here’s a look at the areas where Duke seeks the most improvement against Virginia:

Turnovers, mostly by Daniel Jones

Duke has turned the ball over 11 times in its last three games with Virginia. Redshirt junior quarterback Daniel Jones is saddled with the responsibility for most of them over the last two years. Of his 22 career interceptions, Jones has thrown seven against the Cavaliers.

He fumbled in the end zone on a punishing sack in 2016 allowing the Cavaliers to score the game’s final touchdown in their 34-20 win. Last season Jones threw a pick six that began the scoring in Virginia’s 28-21 win at Charlottesville, Va.

The Blue Devils have to make better decisions with the football against the Cavaliers’ defense.

“They play tight coverage, zone or otherwise,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “They do a good job of getting a body on a body and being there about as well as anybody I’ve seen. So it’s up to me to train our quarterback to understand what’s open and what’s not.”

Running game

While not a superior rushing team, Duke has become steady and competent in that area as it has grown into a perennial bowl team.

Backs like Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson handled the carries in the seasons past. This year, redshirt sophomore Brittain Brown and redshirt freshman Deon Jackson take care of things at running back.

Over the last three seasons, Duke has averaged 4.3 yards per carry. But in its last three games against Virginia, Duke’s per-carry average is just 3.5 yards.

This season, Duke is averaging 4.26 yards per carry. That’s 11th in the 14-team ACC.

Jackson leads Duke with 355 yards (4.44 yards per carry) while Brown is just behind at 311 yards (5.11 yards per carry).

Dealing with a lower body injury, Brown didn’t play in last Saturday’s 28-14 win at Georgia Tech. Cutcliffe is hopeful Brown can return to play against Virginia,

Jackson took every Duke running back carry against Georgia Tech, gaining 98 yards on 21 carries (4.67 per attempt).

Duke’s offensive line is being reconfigured to help improve its consistency in opening holes as well as pass-blocking for Jones. Redshirt sophomore Jaylen Miller has taken over at left tackle in place of redshirt senior Christian Harris. Sophomore Jack Wohlabaugh has played well enough to be the starting center. That allows Harmon, who had missed three games with an ankle injury before returning against Georgia Tech, to replace junior Julian Santos at left guard.

Sophomore guard Rakavius Chambers and redshirt sophomore tackle Robert Kraeling continue to man the right side.

The line needs to create running room and the backs have to take advantage for Duke to finally beat Virginia again.

Third-down defense

Duke needs to get the Cavaliers offense off the field in crucial situations, something that’s proven difficult.

Over the last three games with Duke, Virginia has converted 25 of 51 (49 percent) of its third downs to first downs.

Over the last three seasons, Virginia has only converted 39 percent of its first downs overall.

This season, Duke is eighth in the ACC in third-down conversion defense, allowing first downs 37.9 percent of the time. Virginia’s offense is second in the ACC with a 48.2 percent rate of conversion on third down.

Controlling things on third down will go a long way toward the Blue Devils ending their losing streak against Virginia.

In a season where Duke’s defense has been solid for the most part, one if its few weak areas has been putting pressure on the quarterback on third down. According to advanced statistics provided by Inside Edge, the Blue Devils are last in the ACC, having either pressured or hit the quarterback just six times on third downs this season.

Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins has been effective on third downs. He’s has six completions for 20 yards or more on third down, third best among ACC quarterbacks. His 115 rushing yards on third down rank No. 9 among all FBS quarterbacks.

“He’s a very athletic guy,” Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys said. “He looks to run a lot. When he runs, he’s pretty dang good. Have to keep a little bit of an extra eye on him.”

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