Leading up to the Duke-Virginia game, we had a chance to talk to Paul Wiley, writer for the UVa website, Streaking the Lawn. We talked the upcoming matchup between the Cavaliers and Duke as well as the state of each respective programs.
DR: Virginia has struggled lately after starting out with an impressive victory over a good BYU squad. What do you think has gone wrong, and do you think the Cavaliers are just slumping or is this a sign of bigger issues? What have they done well this season and what do they still need to work on?
STL: We have no idea how good this team is. Honestly. The scrappy bunch that knocked off BYU and hung tough against Oregon just never showed up against Pitt. A pretty good performance against Maryland was wasted by some highly questionable coaching decisions. The defense had been the biggest bright spot early on, rated among the nation’s top five by some metrics. It hasn’t been as dominant in recent games, but the attacking style of Jon Tenuta has been a welcome change for Wahoo fans. The offense has been…offensive. We need playmakers to step up and take the fight to the defense. More than anything, we need guys to hang onto the ball: whether that’s on passes, punt returns, or just not fumbling generally, turnovers have been a huge Achilles heel.
DR: The Duke-Virginia series has really become somewhat of a hotly contested rivalry with some bad blood on both sides. What do you see as the roots of that and do you think it is good?
STL: I’m not sure I’d ever call bad blood “good.” Healthy sense of rivalry, yea. But bad blood leads to poisoning the other school’s favorite trees and then lots of people are in prison and no one wants that. I think some of it is UVa frustration. We don’t lose to Duke in football, or at least we didn’t for a while. Then we dropped a few in a row to you guys when we shouldn’t have, and that stung. I think the rivalry has a lot to do with the nature of the schools: lots of students and alumni chose between Duke or UVa, and lots of us have friends at or from the other school. Familiarity breeds contempt; similarity doubles it. It’s why we hate UNC-Chapel Hill more (or at least ought to).
DR: Virginia has had a bit of turnover in personnel, so who are the offensive and defensive weapons that we can expect to see make plays in Saturday’s game?
STL: On defense, it all starts up front. Pressure from DE’s Eli Harold and Jake Snyder is going to be key. DT Brent Urban is 2nd in the ACC in passes defended (behind only VPISU’s Kyle Fuller…a DB), but he may miss the game with an ankle injury. Henry Coley leads the LBs and Anthony Harris is the backbone of the defensive backfield. On offense, no one is really an offensive weapon yet. Kevin Parks carries the bulk of the running load, with Khalek Shepherd and Taquan Mizzell providing some changes of pace—Shepherd with straightaway speed, Mizzell with shiftiness. True freshman Keeon Johnson has stepped up the last few games and made for a fairly reliable target for QB David Watford. But TE Jake McGee should get most of the playmaking looks in the passing game; he was named to the Mackey Award Midseason Watch List this week.
DR: What is the confidence level in Mike London? If UVa can’t get the win against Duke do you think fans start calling for a change or does he get more time?
STL: Those calls are already coming. The game management at points this year has ranged from head-scratching to inexcusable. Last week against Maryland, the decision to play for a 40-plus yard FG with a backup kicker left a lot of fans irate. Losing to Duke would intensify the heat, especially if it happens in a similarly boneheaded manner. BUT—and this is a huge but—he has a very strong recruiting class lined up for next year that is likely to get stronger in the coming months. If cutting London means losing Quin Blanding or Andrew Brown, then patience may be the better part of valor. I’ve been told it’s a virtue as well, so patience has that going for it too.
DR: This game is pretty important for both teams for different reasons, who do you think needs this win more?
STL: Virginia, I don’t think that’s just my homer’s view. Without a win over Duke, Virginia cannot get to six wins. Period. Our remaining schedule is Duke, Ga Tech, Clemson, at UNC, at Miami, and VPISU. We need four more wins to make a bowl game. As is, there are maybe three wins in that stretch, leaving us at 5-7. Losing to Duke ends the season in terms of bowl hopes. Even if Duke loses Saturday, there are very winnable games left against Wake, NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill, enough to put the Blue Devils into postseason play. You might get there on the back of wins against NC Central, Memphis and Troy [judging glare] but you should still get there.
DR: Finally, what are your final thoughts on the matchup and how do you think it plays out on the field?
STL: I’d like to think the Hoos rally to the challenge. There’s a suspect defense on the field that should help our offense gain some identity. But there’s a potent passing attack, and we got burned by that against Ball State. If we win this game, it’s by playing our style of football: putting you in a chokehold (aggressive defense, aggressive defense, aggressive defense), putting ourselves in one as well (special teams, penalties, and turnovers), and hoping you black out before we do. I’m going to say Hoos 29 (yea, screw your regular football scores), Duke 21 in an epic game of #goacc Russian rochambeau.
Thanks to Paul for taking the time. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @PWiley87