Duke football: Offense to face toughest challenge to date against Virginia

Duke sophomore quarterbak Riley Leonard (13) throws out a pass in the second quarter of Saturday's game against Kansas at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
Duke sophomore quarterbak Riley Leonard (13) throws out a pass in the second quarter of Saturday's game against Kansas at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. /

The offense for Duke football is about to face their biggest challenge of the season. Don’t let Virginia’s 2-2 record fool you, because this will be the best defense the Blue Devils have faced to date this season by far.

Just plain nasty

The Virginia defense has been stifling. 3½ yards per rushing attempt. 6.7 yards per pass attempt. In their loss to Syracuse on Saturday, they held Sean Tucker to just sixty yards on twenty-one carries. All Tucker did last year was rush for nearly 1,500 yards. Any way he turned there was a Cavalier defender coming at him. Sure, in their second game of the season, Illinois had nearly two hundred yards rushing, but had to run the ball forty-five times to get there. At his weekly press conference, Mike Elko said, “They are doing a really good job with their scheme, and they know what they want to do. They are very comfortable with running it and the kids are playing really fast and physical.”

You want more? They sacked Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader six times and now have fourteen in four games. Georgia tech transfer Chico Bennett, who Elko describes as extremely disruptive, has four sacks so far. They’ve forced eight fumbles and recovered seven, and have created nine turnovers overall. To say this defense is active and a group of ball hawks is an understatement. These guys get after you. “They blitz a little bit more (than Kansas) and they are more exotic on third down. That is where some of those stats are coming from too,” said Elko.

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Playing it safe

There is a stat that really jumps out at me when I look at the Cavaliers to this point. Teams are completing over sixty-five percent of their passes against them. But they are giving up less than eleven yards per catch and the longest completion by any opponent is just forty-three yards. Part of this is because of quarterbacks wanting to get the ball out of their hand in a hurry while facing those blitzes, but I don’t think that is the entire story. They look like they want to keep everything in front of them. let a team throw short, and limit the yardage in order to take away deep throws. The Blue Devil receivers are going to present a special challenge for them.

Big guys up front will be counted on again

Mike Elko challenges his offensive line each week, but said this is something his guys up front haven’t seen before, “This one is a little bit of a different challenge. These guys are physical, but they are really athletic. This is an explosive, twitchy, athletic front. Kansas presented a little bit of that to us, but this is the first time we are going to see that type of front. While it is a challenge similar that our offensive line is going to have to step up and protect Riley [Leonard].”

Protect Riley Leonard and give the young quarterback time to test the Virginia secondary with that group of playmaking receivers. A blitz generally means man-to-man coverage and open spaces for a quarterback to take off. If Leonard sees an opportunity, he needs to take advantage and use his legs to do damage. The offensive line also needs to be strong in the run game. Jordan Waters and Riley Coleman are no-nonsense runners who don’t waste time getting through the hole. Gaping holes would be nice, but they aren’t really necessary for these two who are averaging a combined one hundred yards per game. If the Blue Devils can establish a run game, play action can become very effective against the Cavaliers’ active defense.

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The Blue Devils hope to kick off ACC play with an important win and break a seven-game losing streak to the Cavaliers. It is a streak that includes a 48-0 drubbing last year. A win will give Elko’s team four on the season and move them to within two of becoming bowl eligible. Kickoff is at 7:30 Saturday night.