The Virginia defense did not allow Duke to score in the first quarter of Saturday’s 31-21 win over the Blue Devils, but that didn’t come as much of a surprise. The Cavaliers have given up a grand total of 10 first-quarter points all season. Virginia entered the weekend tied with Stanford for the fewest points allowed in the first quarter in the nation, but after the Cardinal gave up eight first-quarter points in a 53-30 loss Saturday to Oregon, the Cavaliers owned the top spot all to themselves.
Indeed, the statistics have been most favorable for Virginia of late. The Cavaliers have won three straight games and stand as one of two teams (the other being Virginia Tech) that are still in contention for the ACC’s Coastal Division crown. Should Virginia win at No. 23 Florida State on Saturday and should No. 9 Virginia Tech win Thursday against North Carolina, the Cavaliers and Hokies would meet Nov. 26 in Charlottesville with a spot in the ACC title game on the line.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Instead, let’s focus for a bit longer on Virginia’s win Saturday over Duke. The Blue Devils had won three straight games against Virginia – a distinction no ACC team wants to have to carry around – so I’m sure Coach Mike London and his players were happy to snap that streak.
But the game also continued a recent trend that should be encouraging to Virginia followers: Of late, the Cavaliers have been winning the games they’re supposed to win. They took care of a Maryland squad that is having a disastrous season under first-year Coach Randy Edsall, and they finished off a Duke program that serves perennially as a conference doormat.
Not that any of you have forgotten, but Virginia has proven capable of winning games it wasn’t expected to – see games against then-No. 12 Georgia Tech and at Miami – as well in the past five weeks. The Cavaliers seem to be rounding into form, and it will be interesting to see over the regular season’s final two weeks whether they have peaked or are still en route to that point.
1) Matt Conrath/Defensive line. Conrath blocked another field goal Saturday – his third of the season – and that’s mostly what he was asked about after the game. But what was equally – if not more – impressive was his performance a few plays earlier. Duke faced first and 10 from the Virginia 13-yard line in what at that point was a scoreless game. Conrath, from his position at defensive tackle, noticed the guard nearest him was light in his stance, which clued Conrath in that the guard likely was going to pull to the outside. At the snap, the guard pulled and Conrath charged through the hole. The offensive tackle who was supposed to step over and block Conrath was slow to do so, and Conrath wrapped up Duke quarterback Sean Renfree before Renfree could hand the ball off. The ball came loose, but the Blue Devils recovered. Still, Conrath caused Duke to lose five yards on the play. On the whole, the Virginia defensive line played well Saturday. The Cavaliers’ top five defensive linemen (Conrath, Cam Johnson, Nick Jenkins, Will Hill and Jake Snyder) combined to tally 24 tackles, four tackles for a loss and one sack. They played a key role in limiting Duke to 34 rushing yards on the day.
2) The offensive line. Virginia gained 165 rushing yards on 42 carries (3.9 yards per carry), which is impressive, but considering Duke entered the game allowing an average of 161.3 rushing yards per game, the Cavaliers’ success on the ground should have been expected. Still, Virginia owns the third-most potent rushing attack in the ACC, and that’s nothing to scoff at. Also, for the third straight game, the offensive line did not allow a sack. Only nine FBS teams in the nation have allowed fewer sacks than Virginia (eight) this season, and none of those teams reside in the ACC.
3) Max Milien. The fifth-year senior fullback entered Saturday’s game averaging 1.5 receptions per contest and had rushed the ball once all season. But against Duke, Milien carried the ball twice for seven yards and caught a team-high four passes for a career-high 62 yards. Milien said that early last week he jokingly pined to get the ball more often in games with offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. The good-natured plea seems to have paid off.
1) Pass defense. We’ll delve more into this in a blog post later this morning, but here are the basics: Virginia allowed Duke – which, granted, possesses a highly-effective passing offense – to gain 303 yards through the air Saturday. Somewhat inexplicably, the Blue Devils went away from the pass for most of the third quarter. In the past three games, Virginia has allowed an average of 306.3 passing yards. Its next opponent, Florida State, owns the second-most prolific passing offense (282.7 ypg) in the ACC.
2) Penalties. The Cavaliers reverted back toward its 2010 ways in regards to penalties Saturday. Virginia was flagged six times for 43 yards, which isn’t egregious, but it’s not as disciplined as London would prefer, either. On the season, Virginia is averaging 5.3 penalties and 42.1 penalty yards per game, which is still markedly better than last season, when the Cavaliers averaged 8.2 penalties and 73.3 penalty yards per game.
3) Punt returns. This point, of course, is setting aside the 21-yard punt return by junior tailback Perry Jones in the third quarter. But the fact that special teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter felt the need to turn to Jones late in the game says something about the team’s confidence level in true freshman Dominique Terrell, at least as it pertains to returning punts this season. There’s no question the coaching staff believes in Terrell’s skills and potential or they wouldn’t have made him the primary punt returner in the first place. But Terrell hasn’t progressed at a very noticeable rate thus far. He still seems unsure at times of whether to field a punt, let it drop or call for a fair catch. He let one bounce in front of him in the first quarter Saturday and it ended up hitting his leg because he failed to get out of the way. Duke recovered the ball. London said Sunday that at the point in the game when the coaches replaced Terrell with Jones as the punt returner, they just wanted to make sure “that the moment didn’t get too big again for” Terrell.