CHARLOTTESVILLE — A 4-0 start didn’t make Virginia’s football players overconfident, they said, so why would back-to-back losses shake their faith?
“Any time you don’t win, it’s absolutely discouraging, but you move week to week,” sophomore offensive tackle Bobby Haskins said. “Our goals are to win the Coastal and to beat [Virginia] Tech and to win our bowl game, all still in front of us, all on the table.”
UVA (4-2, 2-1 ACC) hosts Duke on Saturday in a key ACC Coastal Division game, one where the winner retains at least a share of first place. The Cavaliers, after their hot start, have lost back-to-back games, at Notre Dame and Miami.
“It’s not discouraging at all,” senior wide receiver Joe Reed said. “We still have the same mindset coming into the season. We’re still working toward the same goals that we had coming into the season. Really it just comes down to learning experiences, learning from our losses, learning from our mistakes and just try to move forward.”
In the Blue Devils (4-2, 2-1), Virginia draws an opponent it’s found success against in recent years.
Virginia has increased its ACC win total each season under coach Bronco Mendenhall. But from Day 1, its had a mastery of Duke. The Cavaliers have won the last four meetings with the Blue Devils, including all three since Mendenhall took over.
In his first season, when UVA won just one ACC game, it came on the road at Duke.
“I don’t have an explanation,” Mendenhall said when asked about his record against the Blue Devils. “Again, the league and our division is so, so close. The number of plays that determine outcome, as you know, is so small. In this particular game and this particular matchup, we just made a few more plays. To go any further than that I would be guessing.”
Of course, after consecutive losses, defeats that knocked UVA out of the Top 25 rankings, Virginia’s players said they’d be eager to face any opponent.
“We need to just get this win because we still have the back-to-back losses and that taste in our mouth,” said junior defensive end Mandy Alonso. “It’s been three weeks because of the bye, so it’s just this long period of just losing and, we need to get it out of our system and get this one.”
Matchup to watch: UVA’s corners against Duke’s wide receivers. The Cavaliers moved De’Vante Scott to corner to pair with Nick Grant, following the season-ending injury to Bryce Hall. Duke’s quick throw game, with short passes and no focal point star receiver, will be a good but manageable test for the new secondary configuration.
Three keys to victory:
1 Possess the ball: The best way to keep pressure off a Virginia secondary playing its first game without All-American corner Bryce Hall is to keep the ball away from the Blue Devils. UVA leads the ACC in time of possession by more than two minutes per game, an accomplishment made all the more impressive when you consider the lack of success the Cavaliers have had running the football.
2 Score touchdowns in the red zone: Against Miami, UVA struggled in the red zone, settling for three field goals and no touchdowns in a 17-9 loss. It spent the week focused on improving that red zone attack, a part of the offense hurt by the Cavaliers’ lack of a run game. Duke ranks third in the ACC in red zone defense, but Virginia needs to make the most of its scoring opportunities.
3 Pressure Quentin Harris: Virginia is tied for the ACC lead with 27 sacks this season. Duke has allowed just six sacks in six games, playing an offensive scheme that emphasizes getting rid of the ball quickly. Virginia’s coaches have said they won’t back off their blitz-heavy approach despite the injury to Hall, so if the Cavaliers are going to bring pressure, it needs to have an impact. They don’t necessarily have to sack Harris, but they will need to disrupt his timing and force him to throw with a rush coming at him.