By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A college stadium whose capacity is only 33,941 figures to have thousands of empty seats for Duke’s next football game there.
That’s a familiar scene at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C., though, and no matter how subdued the atmosphere may be there Saturday afternoon, neither team will lack motivation in this ACC game.
Virginia’s clash with Coastal Division rival Duke may turn out to be more compelling than the teams’ records would suggest.
“Both of us are hungry,” Mike London said.
London is UVa’s first-year coach, and his team has won two straight games since a dispiriting loss to North Carolina. Four regular-season games remain. The Cavaliers (1-3, 4-4) must win at least three of them to become bowl-eligible.
“We want to keep playing,” senior linebacker Darnell Carter said. “Four games is not really enough.”
Virginia is coming off its most impressive victory of the season, a 24-19 upset of the then-No. 22 Miami Hurricanes at Scott Stadium. That same day in Annapolis, Md., Duke (0-4, 2-6) ended a six-game losing streak by shocking Navy 34-31.
A week earlier, the Blue Devils had lost 44-7 to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. But David Cutcliffe said his team’s competitive spirit never waned.
“I think our attitude has been one of the most interesting and maybe even amazing things I’ve been around in coaching,” Cutcliffe said. “To go through a six-game losing streak and to be as determined, upbeat and positive as our staff and players were was a tribute to their character.”
In a series that dates to 1890, 21 of Duke’s 29 victories over UVa were recorded before 1980. The Devils, however, beat the Wahoos in 2008 and ’09, outcomes that did nothing to boost the popularity of London’s predecessor, Al Groh.
A victory Saturday would be UVa’s first under London in an ACC road game. It would also return the ‘Hoos to what they consider their rightful place in this rivalry.
“Losing to them two times in a row, it definitely leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, because you don’t want to lose any games,” junior wideout Kris Burd said.
The Cavaliers’ secondary can expect to be busy Saturday. Duke, 11th among ACC teams in rushing offense, ranks second in passing offense (261.6 yards per game). Only one team in the league, N.C. State, has attempted more passes than Duke.
For the season, the Devils’ quarterback, sophomore Sean Renfree, has thrown more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (11). But he went 28 for 30 for 314 yards and 1 TD, with no picks, against Navy.
Duke’s top two wideouts, sophomore Conner Vernon and junior Donovan Varner, rank first and third, respectively, among ACC players in receptions per game.
The Devils “spread the field and attack you not as much vertically but horizontally,” London said. “They make you defend a lot of areas from sideline to sideline.”
“We know as a secondary, they’re definitely going to complete some passes,” Virginia safety Rodney McLeod said. “We gotta just stay focused.”
UVa intercepted five passes last week, in part because its defensive line was able to pressure Miami’s quarterbacks. Jeff Hanson wants to see more of the same in Durham.
“Basically this thing this weekend is we’re going to need a good pass rush, and we’re going to have to get up the field, because the kid does a good job throwing the football,” said Hanson, who coaches UVa’s defensive line. “The big thing for us is he’ll get rid of the ball quickly quite often. We’ve got to basically get up the field quickly, get in his face, get ready to get our hands up and knock balls down, and we’ve got to be relentless this weekend as far as pass rush.”
London spent the 2008 and ’09 seasons as head coach at the University of Richmond, his alma mater, but he knows his way around Wallace Wade Stadium. UR upset Duke there last year.
Virginia hasn’t won at Duke since 2006. Two years later, the Blue Devils humbled the ‘Hoos 31-3 in Durham to end a 25-game ACC losing streak.
That Virginia team went 5-7. A year later, the Cavaliers finished 3-9, after which Groh was fired. The past two-and-a-half seasons have been trying for the program, and London’s team is determined to change the perception of UVa football in the state and around the ACC.
“We just want respect, honestly,” said Carter, a fifth-year senior who has taken over as the starter at middle linebacker. “We want people to respect us. We don’t want people to say, ‘It’s just Virginia. We’re going to walk all over them,’ because of our past games. So we play with a little chip on our shoulder.”