Virginia is finally set to open its season after three scheduled openers were scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said the Cavaliers are ready.
“We’re anxious to play football,” Mendenhall said this week, noting that by his calculations, his team has been back on campus for 12 weeks. The coach said the game against Duke (0-2, 0-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) will be “a reward for all their hard work,” not only in practice, but in how they have managed the virus.
The Cavaliers have had no positive test results.
Facing a team that has already played twice could be viewed as a disadvantage, Mendenhall said, because the Blue Devils’ games have ostensibly allowed them to fine-tune some early season kinks.
But Virginia wide receiver Terrell Jana believes the Cavaliers have an edge, too. They are going with lefthander Brennen Armstrong at quarterback, and he played sparingly the past two seasons as the understudy to Bryce Perkins, leaving Duke without much film to study.
“All this time before our first game has been time to get more catches, more reps, more rhythm, to be in touch more, I think, as a team and just for all the quarterbacks to get more reps with all the receivers,” Jana said.
The Blue Devils have struggled thus far, losing 27-13 at No. 7 Notre Dame and 26-6 at home against Boston College, a game in which they turned the ball over five times.
It’s only the second time in David Cutcliffe’s 13 years at Duke that the Blue Devils have lost their first two games.
“Do we need consistency? Absolutely,” Cutcliffe said. “Do we need a little bit more hunger? Absolutely. … We will attack the problem. We’ve never run away from any issues since we’ve been here, and we’re certainly not running away from this one.”
Some other things to watch when Duke visits Virginia:
Armstrong won a battle for the starting quarterback job with Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson, once one of the nation’s most highly regarded dual-threat prospects. The redshirt sophomore completed 15 of 20 passes last season with one touchdown and two interceptions and ran for 74 yards on nine carries.
The Blue Devils could give Armstrong trouble as they have gotten strong production from their defensive front in two games. Duke ranks eighth nationally by averaging 4.5 sacks in two games, including six against Boston College.
Virginia is thin at running back, but Wayne Taulapapa, last year’s starter, is back. Not flashy, Taulapapa ran for 473 yards, but also 12 touchdowns, last year. His best game came against the Blue Devils when he gained 77 yards and scored twice.
CLEANING UP MISTAKES
Duke lost three fumbles and had two interceptions thrown by Chase Brice. Two of those turnovers, a fumble by Deon Jackson and one on a sack by Brice, came with the Blue Devils inside the Eagles’ 5-yard line.
“Running backs, going through through the hole, they’re protecting the ball a little bit more. As receivers, we catch the ball, we’ve got to tuck it a little bit more, a little bit harder, more force,” wide receiver Jake Bobo said. “It’s just something you’ve got to think about a little bit more, and hopefully Saturday we’ll be a little better about it.”
The Blue Devils will be playing an opponent in its season-opening game for the third straight game because Virginia’s game against Virginia Tech last weekend was postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak among the Hokies.
“I think it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever been through,” Cutcliffe said. “I doubt this has ever happened in college football, where a team has three games you play where you have no film to study. … Our players are a little irritable about it, to be real honest with you. It’s a unique setting, it’s what we’ve been given. So we have to deal with it and just move forward.”
By HANK KURZ Jr. AP Sports Writer
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