Duke needs its offense to keep pouring on the points against Virginia

Scoring points like they haven’t in 30 years, the Duke Blue Devils take a potent, confident offense into a crucial ACC Coastal Division matchup this weekend.

Entering Saturday’s game at Virginia, Duke has scored 30 or more points in five consecutive games, averaging 40.4 points per game over that stretch.

The last time Duke put together such a streak was 1989, when Steve Spurrier coached the Blue Devils to a share of the ACC championship. Duke tied Virginia for the league title that season.

On Saturday at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., the Blue Devils (4-2, 2-1 ACC) and Cavaliers (4-2, 2-1 ACC) meet in a game where the winner will retain a share of the Coastal Division lead halfway through the ACC schedule.

“I think that what this is, is setup time if you want to be a November football team,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Tuesday during his weekly news conference. “I’ve certainly talked with them about that. Virginia is saying the same thing to their guys. It is a huge football game for both of us. These are the games you want to play.”

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A good mix of running, passing for Duke

Duke hopes its offense remains strong as it faces a Virginia defense that’s been among the league’s best in recording sacks to slow the passing game while also stopping the run.

With redshirt senior quarterback Quentin Harris running the offense, the Blue Devils are doing a good job of mixing the run and pass to keep opposing defenses off balance. Duke is No. 5 in the ACC averaging 182.8 rushing yards per game, up from last seasons 159.6.

Harris’ 380 rushing yards lead all ACC quarterbacks. Junior running back Deon Jackson is second on the Blue Devils with 361 yards.

Moving the ball on the ground against Virginia will be a challenge, however.

The Cavaliers have tackled opponents for a loss on 48 of 201 rushing attempts, according to advanced statistics compiled by Inside Edge. That tackle for loss rate of 23.9 percent on rushing attempts is second in the ACC.

Duke hasn’t defeated Virginia since 2014, losing the last four meetings of the annual Coastal series. Jackson will be tasked with helping provide a strong running game to turn this series around.

“We haven’t beaten Virginia in a minute so that’s definitely some motivation,” Jackson said. “I haven’t beaten them since I’ve been here. That’s definitely something that’s on my mind. I definitely want to come out with a win.”

Blue Devils need another strong game

While Duke’s passing game averages only 204.5 yards per game, a small amount compared to Wake Forest’s ACC-leading average of 331 yards per game, it’s been reliable nevertheless. Duke has completed 62.5 percent of its passes with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Underneath routes, rather than deep throws downfield, have proven effective on crucial third-down plays.

According to Inside Edge, Duke junior tight end Noah Gray has 10 receptions on 13 third-down targets for a 76.9 reception percentage this season.

In the same situations, Duke freshman wide receiver Jalon Calhoun has nine receptions on 12 targets (75 percent).

The national average is 55 percent, so those two players and the rest of Duke’s receivers are doing a good job of getting open and making catches in tough situations.

“Our receivers have improved tremendously,” Cutcliffe said. “We have a lot of confidence right now. I’m seeing a lot of transformation in our young people as well as the people that have been here. I love the fact that there’s competition.”

Virginia’s pass defense took a talent hit last week when Bryce Hall, a preseason all-ACC selection at cornerback, suffered a season-ending leg injury during a 17-9 loss at Miami.

So an opportunity exists for Duke’s offense, already on a roll, to take advantage. If the Blue Devils want to remain atop the Coastal Division standings, they’ll need another strong performance.

Cutcliffe said his team’s focus showed him they are aware of this game’s importance.

“It gives you a sense that they know that it is wide open in this conference,” Cutcliffe said. “You know what, players know. I mean, you can’t fool a player, they’ve played these teams every year. They know that if you play well, you’ve got a chance to win. I think that’s being said by every coach in the Coastal Division. And it’s true. You have to focus on playing extremely well.”

Duke at Virginia

When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va.

Watch: ACC Network

Listen: WRBZ-99.3, WDNC-620 Raleigh; WRBZ-96.5, WDNC-620 Durham; WBCN-94.7, WHVN-1660 Charlotte

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.