Conner Vernon needs just one catch to set a new ACC record for career receptions. Credit: CHUCK LIDDY
Duke vs. Virginia
When: 3 p.m.
Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham
Line: Duke by 1.5
TV/Radio: ACC Network/WRAL, WDNC-620 AM, WKIX-102.9 FM
What they’re saying nationally about Duke:
Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel: My preseason Duke-makes-a-bowl prediction is looking better by the week. The Blue Devils are off to their best start since they began 5-0 in 1994 -- also the last time they made a bowl -- following Saturday's 34-27 win over Wake Forest, their first over the Demon Deacons since 1999. Meanwhile, the rest of Duke's division is entirely unimposing. Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Virginia and North Carolina are a combined 10-10. Surely there are two more wins to be had in that bunch.
ESPN’s Andrea Adelson: The Blue Devils are not throwing a bowl party just yet, but they are off to their best start since 1994 and have had recent success against their opponent this week, Virginia. Duke has won three of the past four meetings between the two teams. The Blue Devils need two more wins to become bowl eligible, and the way the rest of the schedule sets up, Duke has got to win this game. If they don't, it will be difficult to find two wins in their final six games (at Virginia Tech, North Carolina, at Florida State, Clemson, at Georgia Tech, Miami).
What they’re saying nationally about Virginia:
Adelson (on QB Phillip Sims): The No. 1 thing the Hoos will need from him is to protect the football. Michael Rocco had too many costly interceptions and just didn't do enough in Virginia's three-game losing streak.
What I said about Duke this week:
Key Player for the opposition:
Head coach Mike London announced Wednesday that Sims, who transferred from Alabama this summer, will make his first start at Virginia this weekend. Michael Rocco, who started last year and the first five games this year, will now come off the bench.
Sims has seen action in every game this season, going 28-of-46 for 340 yards with five touchdowns and (unlike Rocco) no interceptions. In last week’s 44-38 loss to Louisiana Tech, Sims relieved Rocco and went 10-for-17 for 166 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Earlier this season, Sims had been slowed by a knee injury and lack of familiarity with the playbook, but both limitations seen to be fading.
“Every week is always a better week in terms of his knowledge of the offense,” London said. “Him having performed the last three and a half weeks or so, he's deserved an opportunity to start a game, to get the reps in practice, to get the concentration on the finer details of things.”
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe downplayed the effects of the quarterback switch.
“It's the same offense,” he said. “They have a system, a very versatile system. Any coordinator will call something to the strengths of a player, but not outside of their system.”
Virginia’s offensive line, including LT Oday Aboushi vs. Duke’s defensive line, including DEs Kenny Anunike and Dezmond Johnson
Virginia’s line is stacked with 300-pound players. Right guard Sean Cascarano is the smallest at 6-foot-6, 280 pounds. From there, the Cavaliers start 6-foot-6, 295-pound Luke Bowanko at center, 6-foot-5, 300 pound Conner Davis at left guard, 6-foot-6, 325-pound Morgan Moses at right tackle, and 6-foot-6, 310-pound Oday Aboushi at left tackle, protecting Sims’ blindside. Duke cannot physically simulate Virginia’s size in practice—the Blue Devils don’t have the personnel. So much of Duke’s success on defense is predicated on the consistent pass rush the line has generated this year. Dezmond Johnson is a full 75 pounds lighter than Moses, while Anunike cedes 50 pounds to Aboushi.
Virginia CBs Demetrious Nicholson and Drequan Hoskey vs. Duke WRs Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder
If Duke is going to win the game, it’s going to have to rely on its strengths. Vernon (who has been incorrectly called “Varner” all week by London) enters the contest needing just one more catch to set a new ACC career record. He and Crowder are tied for the team lead with 34 catches. Virginia’s defense has struggled this year, especially with defending screen passes, which Duke is fond of mixing in with downfield looks. The Cavaliers defense is allowing 32 points per game, which ranks 10th in the league.
Average penalty yards for Virginia per game. That’s higher than any other ACC team. “There's a difference between talking tough and playing tough,” London said, “And I'm all about playing tough and not talking tough.”
Catch needed by Conner Vernon to set the new ACC mark for career recpetions
turnover generated by Virginia's defense this season
Every week, it seems as if the injury situation at Duke could not possibly get any worse. But with each passing game, the situation does become more and more dire.
Starting safety Brandon Braxton was the latest defensive starter to be ruled out for the game. He joins key defensive players LB Kelby Brown, DL Jamal Bruce, DL Justin Foxx, S Chris Tavarez, S Taylor Sowell and S Corbin McCarthy on the unavailable list. CB Lee Butler and DL Jamal Wallace are questionable.
Cutcliffe said Thursday that thinking about all the injuries— a situation compounded by Duke’s late Nov. 10 open date—has cost him sleep.
“I find my self lying awake at night,” he said. “I’ve never been one to do that. I’m literally awake a lot at night thinking about this. And that’s not a good thing. I’ve cut my caffeine off at 11 o’clock in the morning trying to make myself sleep.”
Tweet of the week:
“If you want it you'll find a way, if not you'll find an excuse” —WR Conner Vernon
Fox Sports South’s Andrew Jones: Duke, 23, Virginia 20
ESPN’s Dinich: Virginia 45, Duke 31
CBS Sports’ Shawn Krest: Virginia 21, Duke 17
Duke’s defense will be challenged to compensate for Dwayne Norman, who looked rather lost at times last week. Other players won’t be able to take the same type of risks that they could if Braxton was in that spot. The problem will be exasperated if the line can’t get any pressure on Sims, who will likely provide the Cavaliers offense with a shot in the arm.
But while Virginia’s offensive line his huge, it’s far from perfect. London has moved around some backups in attempts to create more competition. And the line has accumulated its fair share of personal foul penalties.
Offensively, I expect Sean Renfree to play. If he doesn’t though, it’s not an absolute nightmare for Duke. Virginia struggled against Louisiana Tech’s screens last week—Anthony Boone is more than capable of throwing those, and Vernon, Crowder and Desmond Scott are more than capable of catching them.
And don’t forget the Virginia’s defense has forced a grand total of one turnover this season.
With all that said, I don’t expect the game Saturday to be pretty. But I do expect Duke to win.
Duke 23, Virginia 21