Duke’s Elko sees improvement in Virginia, Devils looking for rare win at Scott

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: Duke Athletics

Add Duke coach Mike Elko to the list of opponents who have been impressed with Virginia’s strides on the football field this season. Elko’s Blue Devils (6-4, 3-3) come to Charlottesville for Saturday’s 3-p.m. game (The CW network).

Duke is a 3.5- to 4-point favorite by Vegas Insiders.

“We’re going to Charlottesville to take on a really talented UVA team,” Elko said. “I know the record is what it is, but this group (UVA) is playing at a much higher level than they did last year. You can see the togetherness, you can see that they’re really bought into what Tony [Elliott] is trying to do.”

Virginia is 2-8 overall and 1-5 in the ACC, still looking for its first conference home win in Elliott’s two seasons as head coach. The Cavaliers lost to Duke last season, 38-17, in Durham. UVA is 2-11 in the ACC over the past two seasons.

“We have a chance to go to Charlottesville this week and win at a place where Duke football hasn’t won in a really long time (2013),” Elko said. “We still have a chance to compete to get into a really exciting bowl game and those are things that are really important to us.”

Virginia didn’t put up much resistance last season when the two teams met, as the Blue Devils ran the ball with ease against the Cavaliers and quarterback Riley Leonard hurt UVA’s defense with his arm and his ability to run.

Leonard has missed the past two games with a toe injury, with freshman Grayson Loftis filling in admirably, particularly in a high-scoring, double-overtime loss at North Carolina last weekend when Loftis was 16 of 28 passing for 189 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Elko’s film-scouting of Virginia made it obvious that the Cavaliers have improved over a year ago, even though the record wouldn’t indicate the gains. UVA is averaging 23 points per game, which is essentially a touchdown more per game than a year ago. What has hurt has been an injury-riddled defense that is giving up 32.3 points per game.

“On [Virginia’s] offense, it starts with Malik Washington,” Elko said. “He’s playing at an elite level. Obviously very dynamic catching the football, running routes, but also using him in the screen game and some of the jet-sweep game, and really finding ways to get him the football.”

Washington, on the verge of breaking several UVA receiving records (see related story on this site), is No. 2 nationally in almost every receiving category.

“The big outside kid, Malachi Fields, which has always kind of been a staple of Coach Elliott and Coach (Des) Kitchings’ (UVA’s offensive coordinator) offenses, is having that big, tall playmaker that is really hard to hold on to one-on-one on the outside. They play two quarterbacks and both of them have played at a really good level this year. I think they are an offense that is very dangerous.”

Like Duke, the Cavaliers will likely go with a freshman this week in Anthony Colandrea, who has played well when starter Tony Muskett has been injured. Muskett is “day-to-day,” nursing a high-ankle sprain suffered against Georgia Tech on Nov. 4.

While Elko may think UVA’s offense is very dangerous, the Cavaliers still have managed to score 30 points or more in only two games this season, a 36-35 loss to JMU, and 31-27 in a road upset over then-No. 10 ranked North Carolina.

“Defensively, they’ve kind of got a mixed group,” the Duke coach said. “There’s a lot of guys that have played a lot of football and then you’ve got some really young, talented players intertwined in that.

“I think, second year in the system, they’re operating at a much higher level and playing this thing really well. They’ve played some really good football this year. I think they’ve gotten better every single week (Elko must have skipped the UVA-Georgia Tech game film).”