By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s the next game on the schedule, and that makes it the biggest game on the schedule, UVa football players would tell you. Even so, their visit to Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium is important for other reasons, the Cavaliers know.
At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, in game to be televised on the ACC Network, Virginia (4-2, 2-0) meets Coastal Division rival Duke (5-1, 1-1). The team buses pulled away from the McCue Center early Friday afternoon, and the players and coaches inside needed no reminders of the opportunities awaiting them in Durham, N.C.
In each of the Wahoos’ past two games with Duke, they were outscored 28-0 in the second half and suffered a humbling loss.
Not only do the `Hoos want to prove Saturday that they’re capable of playing well for more than a half, senior tight end Zachary Swanson said, it’s “a huge opportunity for us to take another step in the ACC … This is the determinant of whether our season goes up or down.”
That’s probably overstating things. Win or lose in Durham, UVa will have five regular-season games remaining. Still, the Cavaliers, who were picked to finish last in the Coastal, are the only team in that division without an ACC loss, and a victory Saturday would move them to the brink of bowl-eligibility.
A win would also halt, if only temporarily, the Blue Devils’ surge in a series Virginia still leads 33-32.
Duke has won two straight over UVa and five of the past six meetings. Moreover, the Cavaliers haven’t won at Wallace Wade Stadium since 2006.
“They’ve had our number in the past, so this year we’re definitely trying to change it,” said UVa defensive tackle David Dean, a junior from Virginia Beach.
In his seven seasons as the Blue Devils’ head coach, David Cutcliffe has transformed a program that perennially was the ACC’s weakest. Duke won the Coastal Division in 2013 and appears headed to a bowl game for the third straight season.
“Coach Cutcliffe has done a great job in recruiting his profile player,” said his UVa counterpart, Mike London. “They play a smart brand of football. They don’t try to do more than what they’re capable of. They just play good football.”
The Devils are coming off a 31-25 win over previously unbeaten Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The `Hoos were off last weekend, a welcome break for a team whose No. 1 quarterback, redshirt sophomore Greyson Lambert, sprained an ankle Sept. 20 against BYU and sat out the next two games.
Starting offensive guard Ryan Doull, a redshirt sophomore, won’t play Saturday for medical reasons, but Lambert is expected to be available, as is junior defensive lineman Mike Moore, who’s also been dealing with an ankle injury.
“We look forward to guys being able to get back,” London said. “It’s not always 100-percent health when you get to this point in the season. There are always a lot of players playing with aches, pains, issues. But having a chance to rest and kind of recuperate, you get back to being able to move around, it’s been productive for us, not only for Greyson, but a lot of other guys.”
Matt Johns, also a redshirt sophomore, has filled in capably during Lambert’s absence, and it’s not clear how the Cavaliers plan to use their quarterbacks in Durham.
“To me it doesn’t really matter,” Swanson said. “They’re both effective, they’re both completely capable of doing whatever’s asked of them.”
Duke has no such decision to make. Anthony Boone, a 6-0, 225-pound senior, has a 15-1 regular-season record as the Devils’ starter.
“There’s no question he’s a great leader,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s a fierce competitor. His teammates absolutely believe in him, and so does the coaching staff.”
Cutcliffe’s teams traditionally have been known for their proficiency in the passing game, but he’s modified his tactics this season. At the regular season’s midway point, Duke has more rushing attempts (235) than passing attempts (223). Against Virginia, the Blue Devils will be facing a defense that has allowed only 91.5 yards rushing per game, which ranks sixth nationally.
Opponents are averaging only 2.7 yards per carry against the `Hoos, who with many of the same players surrendered 4.4 yards per run in 2013.
This is the defense’s second season under coordinator Jon Tenuta, and that’s helped. So has the film study the players have done this year.
“We’ve seen what we did [poorly] in the past, and we’ve really tried to focus on it this year,” Dean said. “And that’s been a big [part of] our success as a defense. Because if you stop the run, then they have to throw the ball, and that allows us to do what we do best — blitz and create turnovers.”
Moore said: “The front seven, we definitely know we have a challenge [against Duke]. But we know as long as we stay true to Tenuta’s defense, we know we can make plays.”
The Cavaliers made plenty of plays against the Devils in 2012 and ’13 — before halftime.
Two years ago, at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke rallied from a 17-14 halftime deficit to win 42-17. At Scott Stadium last year, the `Hoos went up 22-0 in the second quarter, led 22-7 at the break, and ended up losing 35-22.
“We definitely remember that loss,” Dean said. “It left a bad taste in all of our mouths, especially people that played, so we’re definitely going to make it an emphasis to not let anything like that happen this year.”
London said he’s stressed to his players that “last year’s game was last year’s game. This team that we have this year is a different team, with a different mindset, with different leadership.”
All true, but that doesn’t mean his players have forgotten last year’s collapse against Duke, especially given Virginia’s second-half performance in its most recent game, Oct. 4 against Pittsburgh.
The `Hoos, who led 24-3 at halftime, had to hold off a spirited comeback by Pitt to win 24-19 at Scott Stadium.
“Those second-half mishaps, they kind of haunt you,” senior wide receiver Miles Gooch said. “Offensively, we had one against Pitt, and not scoring any points in the entire second half as an offense, we can’t let that happen. And I think we’re determined as an offense to not let that happen again, because we know going down the stretch, in order for us to win football games and be successful, we have to keep that from happening.”
The Blue Devils are “not going to quit,” Swanson said. “They’re very solid, they’re very sound, and it’s going to be a good test for us … So that’s one of the things I’m really looking forward to about this game: [to see if] we can put together a full game.”
Gooch, who’s competing as a graduate student, is confident the Cavaliers can do so.
“Being here for five seasons, you definitely appreciate what type of team we have this year,” Gooch said. “I think this is the best group of guys that we’ve had since I’ve been here, and this is the most focused that we’ve ever been.”