There are many who will view Virginia’s matchup at Duke on Saturday through the prism of the Cavaliers’ new starting quarterback. Though he has appeared in every game this season, redshirt sophomore Phillip Sims will officially take the reins of the offense by making his first career college start.
But Sims’s debut carries far greater significance, and it has nothing to do with the ending of junior Michael Rocco’s 18-game run as starting quarterback. Virginia is in the midst of a three-game losing streak, and history indicates one more defeat would likely spell the end of the Cavaliers’ hopes of making a second straight bowl game.
In program history, Virginia has finished with a record at or above .500 only twice – 1967 and 1988 — when it begins a season with four losses in its first six games. The Cavaliers didn’t qualify for a bowl game either time.
Whether they’re able to emerge from this three-game funk depends on an intriguing battle with the Blue Devils, the first of three winnable conference games for Virginia (it faces Maryland and Wake Forest the next two weeks).
Duke is off to its best start since 1994 and looks to have a good shot at earning its first bowl appearance since that season. But it remains to be seen whether Coach David Cutcliffe’s team withers in ACC play, which has been the case when the Blue Devils have started off quickly in the past.
The best news for Virginia is that its offense appeared to turn a corner last week against Louisiana Tech. Both Rocco and Sims connected on big plays – the Cavaliers had nine go for more than 20 yards — and the Cavaliers racked up 38 points. That bodes well against a Duke secondary that has allowed 12 pass plays of more than 20 yards this year, more than every ACC team except North Carolina State.
“Throwing the football down the field, it’s just something I feel comfortable doing,” Sims said this week. “I think I have the arm strength and accuracy to make those throws, so I just feel I might as well capitalize on them. I’m not just gonna waste the talent I’ve been blessed with.”
The challenge for Virginia’s defense will depend on who plays quarterback for Duke.
Senior Sean Renfree already has close to 1,300 passing yards and nine touchdowns, and led by senior Conner Vernon, the Blue Devils have three wide receivers with at least 33 catches this season. But Renfree will be a game-time decision because of an elbow injury suffered in last week’s win over Wake Forest.
If he can’t play, the Blue Devils would turn to dual-threat quarterback Anthony Boone. He has completed 23 of his 36 pass attempts for 210 yards in spot duty this year, and scored Duke’s game-winning touchdown against the Demon Deacons.
As has been the case throughout Virginia’s three-game skid, turnovers and penalties will likely be the deciding factor in this one. The Cavaliers have committed far too many of both recently. In fact, they are most penalized team in the ACC and have the second-worst turnover margin (minus-10) in the country.
But the breath of fresh air Sims should provide, combined with Duke’s own health issues, could be just the pick-me-up Virginia needs in its quest for consecutive bowl game appearances.
My prediction: Virginia 35, Duke 27
What do you think? Will Virginia end its three-game losing streak? Or will this just be the latest sign Duke football is on the mend? Vote in the poll below and let me know how you think this one plays out in the comments section.