One team will leave Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday with a key momentum changing victory. One team will leave with another frustrating loss.
Duke and Virginia kick off at noon tomorrow at Wallace Wade Stadium before a homecoming crowd with both teams in desperate need of a win.
Here's our breakdown of the matchup:
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Inexperience at quarterback has been the norm for every game Duke has played this season. Richmond and Wake Forest both started freshmen, and Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon is no veteran either. The pattern continues this week with a matchup between Virginia's Jameel Sewell and Duke's Thaddeus Lewis. With one start under his belt, Sewell has made a strong case for being the best option for the Cavaliers because his mobility helps compensate for an offensive line that has struggled. However, he also has the best arm of Virginia's three quarterbacks. Lewis will be making his return to the field after exiting the last game against Virginia Tech with a concussion. In the one full game he has been able to play so far, he looked terrific, but can he duplicate that performance against a pretty strong defense? This is the biggest position battle of the game, and the winner of it will give his team a leg up toward victory. Lewis has at least shown a consistent ability to move the football when he has been in the game.
Edge: Slight Duke
Neither team has a lot to be happy about at this position. Jason Snelling and Cedric Peerman have been unable to find much room and combined are averaging less than three yards per carry. Duke on the other hand hasn't had its full roster of running backs healthy for a game yet, and that isn't likely to change this weekend with Ronnie Drummer no better than 50/50 to play according to Ted Roof. If Justin Boyle is back at 100 percent and can stay healthy for the whole game, he certainly helps Duke a lot. The bottom line at this position though is that Virginia has averaged just 51 yards per game rushing; Duke is barely better with 57 yards per game. With numbers that bad, there's nothing to do but to call this position a tossup and see who performs better come gametime.
It's a bit hard to fully get a handle on how good Duke's receivers are because they have only had one full game with Lewis as the starter. Jomar Wright, Eron Riley, and Raphael Chestnut have all had moments of very impressive play, but so far those moments have been a bit sporadic. Duke needs a couple of them to be hot on the same day to really put deep pressure on the defense. If Marcus Jones gets on the field at receiver this week, then he adds another dimension to the passing game with his height and athleticism. Sophomore Kevin Ogletree has so far been the leader for Virginia's receiving corps. He has a pair of touchdown catches on the season and 21 receptions overall. The x-factor in this position matchup is at tight end. Duke's Nick Stefanow has been very helpful for Duke so far, but Virginia's Tom Santi is one of the best in the ACC and coule be a real safety net for Sewell if Duke loses track of him. Duke so far has had more downfield threats in the passing game than Virginia, but the Cavs have some good athletes that can be just as dangerous if the quarterback has time to find them. This is another one that is too close to call.
21 and 1.86. What do those numbers mean you ask? Those are the combined number of sacks allowed by both teams and the combined average yards per carry for both teams running the football. Both numbers reflect on poor offensive line play. Neither team has gotten the type of play up front it needs to be consistently successful. Virginia is statistically better. The Cavaliers have allowed seven sacks compared to Duke's 14. However, the run blocking for Virginia has been very ineffective. Duke's hasn't been much better, but the rushing stats would certainly be better had Boyle and Drummer been healthy all along. This game is likely to be determined by the passing game, and since Virginia has done a better job at protecting the passer, the Cavs get the nod here.
Edge: Slight Virginia
Now this is an area both teams can feel pretty good about. Duke has excelled stopping the run so far this season and Virginia has been pretty stingy also. The Cavaliers have had much more success rushing the passer though than Duke has. Led by freshman Jeffrey Fitzgerald's 2.5 sacks, Virginia has totaled nine sacks in its first four games. Duke has just three sacks on the season. Each team needs its stars to play well this weekend. For Virginia, that means defensive end Chris Long needs to make some plays. As good as he is, he has yet to have a major breakout performance this season and Duke will do very well if the Devils can hold him down this week. For Duke, Eli Nichols and Vince Oghobaase have to get a push into the backfield and force Sewell to make quick decisions with the football. Duke is statistically better than Virginia stopping the run and Virginia is statistically better than Duke rushing the passer. Once again, this shapes up to be a very tight matchup.
Virginia has a young and talented linebacking group led by Clint Sintim on the outside. Sintim has been a wrecking ball so far this season with six tackles for loss and 23 stops overall. Junior Jermaine Dias and sophomore Antonio Appleby complement Sintim quite nicely with Jon Copper rounding out the 3-4 alignment as the team's leading tackler. In Virginia's scheme, the linebackers have to be stout against the run but versatile enough to shoot gaps and cover a lot of ground as well. Duke has its rock in the middle in Mike Tauiliili and steady contributors around him in Codey Lowe and Jeramy Edwards. Duke holds its own very well at this position and on any given Saturday Tauiliili could blow up with a huge performance. However, the production across the Virginia quartet and the ability all of them have to cause trouble in the backfield give the Cavaliers a modest advantage here.
Edge: Slight Virginia
Duke's secondary has so far been rather disappointing. The Blue Devils rank 11th in the ACC in pass defense and got shredded by Virginia Tech two weeks ago. However, having John Talley on one side of the field gives a lot of flexibility for the rest of the group to try and make a big play against the freshman Sewell. All eyes will be on Deonto McCormick to rebound from his rough outing two weeks ago and Duke's safeties should be free to roam a bit more as they shouldn't be needed too much against Virginia's running game. Virginia has its own senior stalwart in the secondary in Marcus Hamilton. Hamilton missed Virginia's loss against Western Michigan with a shoulder injury but played last week against Georgia Tech and should be on the field again this week at his usual corner spot. The rest of the secondary is a little younger and less experienced. Sophomore Chris Cook mans the other corner spot and junior Nate Lyles is a solid playmaker at safety. Virginia ranks fifth in the league in pass defense but is coming off a rough outing against Calvin Johnson and Georgia Tech. Duke can win this position battle, but based on the results of the season so far, the small edge has to go to Virginia, especially with Hamilton on the field and healthy.
Edge: Slight Virginia
The kicking game has been a nightmare for Duke so far this season, with punter Alex Feinberg and kicker Joe Surgan both having their fair share of struggles. Chris Gould had been handling all the kicking duties for the Cavaliers, but Noah Greenbaum enters this week atop the depth chart at placekicker. Gould has gotten off to a productive start flipping field position in the kicking game; he's averaging 42.1 yards per punt and has kicked half of his kickoffs for touchbacks. Greenbaum took over field goal kicking duties last week and missed from 47 yards in his only attempt against Georgia Tech. Surgan has been an adventue to say the least, struggling with his kickoffs and his field goals. Virginia has to like its odds of success if the game comes down to a kicking battle of any kind.
Edge: Medium Virginia
This is a game that Duke can win if the Blue Devils protect the football, score in the red zone, and at least hold their own in the kicking game. That's a lot of ifs for a football team that has lost 11 straight football games. The game is likely to hinge on which quarterback has the better day and which defense can most pressure the other signal caller. Duke has struggled in pass protection all season and Virginia's defensive front has been better than Duke's has at making plays on the quarterback. That fact, combined Duke's so far disastrous results in the kicking game, make picking Duke just too hard to do. The Devils should have a chance in the fourth quarter to pull off a victory, but barring a major turnaround in some key areas, the game could be another frustrating loss in a long line of them.
Prediction: Virginia 19-16