The last time the Virginia football team squared off against a spread-style offense, Southern Mississippi racked up 313 passing yards and three passing touchdowns en route to a 30-24 win over the Cavaliers on Sept. 24 at Scott Stadium.
On Saturday, Virginia will host a Duke squad that operates a similar, pass-happy style of offense. The Blue Devils rank third in the ACC and No. 28 in the country in passing offense (269.8 yards per game). Only 12 teams in the nation have attempted more passes this season than Duke.
The Blue Devils prefer to get rid of the ball quickly, Virginia Coach Mike London said Thursday, and rely on their receivers to adjust their routes based on the opposing defense’s coverage formation. Duke receiver Conner Vernon ranks fourth in the ACC in receptions (56) and yards per game (87).
As you may remember, neither team struggled to move the ball down the field during last season’s meeting, which Duke won in Durham, 55-48. Blue Devils receivers Donovan Varner and Cooper Helfet – who combined to tally 11 receptions for 195 receiving yards against Virginia in 2010 – remain on Duke’s roster. Vernon, Varner, Helfet and Brandon Braxton each have recorded more than 30 receptions this season.
For comparison’s sake, senior wide receiver Kris Burd is the only Virginia player who has hauled in at least 30 receptions so far this season.
With Duke’s proclivity to run short routes, London said it would be imperative that the Virginia defense do what it can to obstruct passing lanes and get in quarterback Sean Renfree’s face. Renfree has completed 66.5 percent of his passes and is averaging 241.8 yards per game this year. Both of those marks rank third among ACC quarterbacks.
“Our linebackers are going to have to have a great game for us,” London said. “You would think the secondary, which is true, and you think the rushers, which is true up front. But I think the linebackers will be important because sometimes there’s the run element to it, and then there’s the drop-back pass.
“But what Duke does a good job of is the play-action pass, faking the run and then trying to throw the ball behind you or in gaps and seams.”
While Virginia ranks No. 4 in the ACC in pass defense (205.3 yards allowed per game), the Cavaliers have struggled against the pass in recent weeks. London said the most critical lesson the defense took out of the Southern Miss game was that “sometimes you can’t defend the whole field vertically or horizontally,” so what Virginia will focus on Saturday is trying to contain the effectiveness of Duke’s crossing routes and ensure its coverage of underneath routes is sound.