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Oct. 18, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a football rivalry that dates to the 19th century, both UVa and Duke have enjoyed long stretches of dominance.

The Cavaliers lead the series 33-31, but the Blue Devils have won four of the past five games in a series that began in 1890. The next one comes Saturday at 3:30 p.m., when Virginia (2-4 overall, 0-2 ACC) hosts Duke (4-2, 0-2) in a Coastal Division clash at Scott Stadium.

As satisfying as a victory over Duke would be, the Wahoos say they’re not obsessed with avenging the 42-17 defeat they suffered in Durham last year.

“It doesn’t matter as much that it’s Duke this week,” offensive guard Jay Whitmire said Monday. “No matter what, we have to get a win.”

During Anthony Poindexter’s five years as a UVa safety — he redshirted in 1994 — his team went 4-1 against the Blue Devils. He’s had less success against Duke as a Virginia assistant coach, but that, Poindexter said Tuesday, doesn’t change his approach to this game.

“Every opponent you want to [beat],” Poindexter, “whether it’s Duke, whether it’s Timbuktu University, it doesn’t matter. If you’re a competitor, you just want to win the game. So Duke’s the next one on the list, and clearly we want to win the game and try to right the ship.”

The Cavaliers have dropped three straight since pounding an overmatched VMI team 49-0 on Sept. 21. The most excruciating of those losses came last weekend in College Park, where UVa fell 28-27 to Maryland when Alec Vozenilek, who had made his first four field-goal attempts, missed from 42 yards in the final seconds.

“We’re still not over it,” defensive tackle Donte Wilkins said Monday. “The bitter taste is still in our mouth. It’ll probably be in our mouth until the end of the season. We just want to keep working hard and remember these losses, remember how they feel so we don’t get them again.”

Wilkins is one of 11 true freshmen to play for UVa this season, and his role figures to grow in the next few weeks while fifth-year senior tackle Brent Urban, an All-ACC candidate, recovers from the ankle injury he sustained against Maryland.

Another defensive starter, junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, will miss his second straight game with a toe injury. Overall, though, the `Hoos are in good health heading into the Duke game, and their spirits remain high, players say.

“It’s never too late,” Wilkins said.

To UVa quarterback David Watford, “the most important thing for us is just to stick together and keep fighting. Things aren’t going to be easy. Football isn’t as easy sport. You gotta keep fighting, you gotta keep pushing, because it’s not going to go your way every time. So we just have to stay resilient and bounce back. We have to stick together. We have to stay as brothers, as a family, and keep playing for each other.”

Watford, a redshirt sophomore from Hampton, is coming off the best performance of his college career. At Byrd Stadium, he completed 27 of 44 passes for 263 yards and one touchdown — an improvised 4-yard toss to junior tight end Jake McGee — and wasn’t intercepted. Watford also gained 34 yards on seven carries.

The loss was “a tough pill to swallow for us, really,” Watford said, “but I feel like my confidence is just getting better week to week. With each game I’m able to see defenses better. The game is slowing down for me more. [Offensive coordinator Steve] Fairchild, he’s shown more confidence in me in the play calls and what we’re able to do on the field as an offense, so I feel like it’s just getting better.”

Virginia’s offense gained 505 yards against Maryland, but it needed a few more. Only two of the Cavaliers’ six trips into the red zone resulted in touchdowns. The others ended in field goals of 28, 18, 27 and 26 yards, respectively, by Vozenilek.

“It is disappointing,” Whitmore, “knowing that maybe if one of those field goals had turned into a touchdown, we would have won the game.”

Another missed opportunity: the third-and-22 pass that Maryland quarterback Caleb Rowe threw into double coverage with Virginia leading 26-20 in the fourth quarter. Wide receiver Deon Long came down with the ball for a 47-yard completion, and two plays the Terrapins scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.

“Coach London always says we’re `this close,’ and we really were that close to winning that game,” Watford said, “and that could have been the turning point in our season that we needed, that spark that we needed to get us on the right path. But we have to just take that into practice every week and just remember every single play, every single rep that we get, every single drill that we do, that feeling that we felt when we walked off the field with that loss.”

Virginia has six regular-season games left, the first three of which are Scott Stadium. (UVa hosts Georgia Tech on Oct. 26 at 12:30 p.m. and No. 3 Clemson on Nov. 2 at a time to be determined.)

For the `Hoos, London said Wednesday, the challenge is “redirecting your energies and focusing on the task at hand. You can go back and you can look back at what happened and what didn’t happen and go back and forth about how you played, the different plays, the third-and-[22], the goal-line situation, the wide right.

“You [can] go back and look at those things and you can wring your hands about them, or you can turn and focus your energies on what’s ahead, correcting those type of things, knowing that we’re a play away, a play or two away from just having these opportunities to be on the plus side.”

UVa’s defense wants to make amends, too. The Terps had 12 plays that went for at least 15 yards each, including gains of 77, 47, 39, 38 and 36. Shoddy tackling and poor pass defense plagued the Cavaliers in College Park.

“Most of the game the big plays come from missed tackles, mistimed jumps, stuff like that that we can control,” said Poindexter, who was an All-America safety for UVa.

“There’s only going to be handful of plays that make the difference in the game. Whether your team makes it or the other team makes, that’s going to decide who wins it. We just gotta make the plays when they come to us.”

Junior Brandon Phelps has started every game at free safety this season, but Rijo Walker, one of only three seniors on UVa’s defense, may get the call at that spot Saturday.

“Very, very, very solid tackler,” Poindexter said of Walker, a graduate of Bethel High in Hampton. “We’re just trying to help ourselves win. If we can help us win, that’s what we want to do. I think Phelps is still going to help us win. We’re not looking to throw Phelps to the side. We’re going to play both kids.”

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