CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) – Virginia is running out of time to turn its season around.
The Cavaliers (2-4, 0-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) play host to Duke on Saturday in what looks like the most winnable game on the second half of their schedule, but the Blue Devils surely feel the same.
Duke (4-2, 0-2) has won four of the last five meetings in the series and would love to move one victory away from bowl eligibility for the second year in a row by winning on the field of a big rival.
“It’s up there with the Carolina game,” Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell said of the series, which Virginia leads 33-31. “There’s a lot of back and forth between the players during the game, whether you’re on the offense or defense, just guys going at it. It’s one of the more intense games we play each year.”
A year ago, the Cavaliers led 17-14 at halftime, but got outscored 28-0 in the second half. The loss was part of a six-game losing streak, the kind of nosedive Virginia is looking to avoid this time around.
Virginia thought it was back on winning track last weekend at Maryland, but placekicker Alec Vozenilek’s 42-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right with 10 seconds remaining in a 27-26 loss. A bus ride home that was quieter than usual followed, but linebacker Henry Coley said the team has bounced back.
“Guys are not hanging their heads down, because a lot of people see that we’re that close,” Coley said this week. “I know you guys are getting tired of people saying that, but it’s that close.”
The Cavaliers’ schedule only gets more difficult going forward with games still to come against No. 3 Clemson, No. 10 Miami and No. 19 Virginia Tech, while Duke still must play the Hokies and Hurricanes.
After breaking a nearly two-decade bowl drought last season, coach David Cutcliffe’s team in second consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in history, and knows the stakes are high each week. He dispelled any notion that his team can expect its recent history in the series to mean anything.
“I don’t think it’s been any kind of, quote, ‘streak,'” the coach in his sixth season said. “We’ve played well enough to win, and we’ve played well enough to win against some other people and didn’t.”
Here are five things to watch when Duke plays at Virginia:
SLOWING BOONE: Then a backup, Duke QB Anthony Boone threw four TD passes against Virginia in the Blue Devils’ 42-17 victory last season. Boone returned from a broken collarbone last week and showed no rust at all, leading touchdown drives on five consecutive series against Navy. Virginia’s defense ranks fourth nationally, forcing seven three-and-outs per game, and will need to do more of that to slow Boone.
WHEN OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Virginia had its best offensive performance of the season last week with 242 yards rushing and 505 yards of total offense, but the Cavaliers still only converted two of six red zone chances into touchdowns, and managed just two field goals off three takeaways. That’s not enough.
STARTING FAST: Virginia’s Eli Harold said it was demoralizing when the Scott Stadium crowd got on the Cavaliers in their 48-27 loss to Ball State two weeks ago, and the way the season has gone, a sparse crowd is expected, and a slow start could quickly convince the fans that more of the same is in the offing.
BIG PLAYS: Duke has had at least three plays of 20-plus yards in each game this season, and Virginia has been vulnerable, allowing more than five of those per game. The Cavaliers’ defense has allowed nearly 1,000 yards in the past two games and will be without its best player, injured DT Brent Urban.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jamison Crowder has already returned two punts for touchdowns this season for Duke, and whether missing field goals or muffing punts, Virginia has been prone to mistakes on special teams. In a game with little margin for error, momentum-shifting plays can often determine the outcome.