Duke’s defensive line is playing better than ever as it looks to exploit Virginia

Internally, the Duke Blue Devils were confident in the steady improvement their defensive line has displayed over the last two seasons.

Externally, others have begun taking notice.

Duke junior Victor Dimukeje was named the ACC’s top defensive lineman for last week’s games after collecting three sacks and two quarterback pressures in a 41-23 win over Georgia Tech.

Pro Football Focus College, utilizing advanced statistics, named Dimukeje, along with Duke defensive tackle Trevon McSwain, defensive end Chris Rumph and linebacker Brandon Hill to its ACC defensive team of the week for their play in the same game.

So now that the rest of college football has shown respect, that defensive front has an opportunity to help Duke claim a win in a key ACC Coastal Division game this weekend.

When the Blue Devils play at Virginia on Saturday, the big guys up front face the task of slowing athletic, often elusive Cavaliers senior quarterback Bryce Perkins.

“Perkins is a great scrambling quarterback and a great quarterback in general,” Duke redshirt senior defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord said Tuesday in an interview with The News & Observer. “We are trying to get ready to play the same every week -- ready to win.”

There’s that internal confidence showing through. It’s taken a few years for Duke to feel that way.

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Duke confident it can add sacks

Back in 2015, the Blue Devils recorded only 17 sacks despite going 8-5 and winning a bowl game for the first time since 1961. That sack total was next-to-last in the ACC.

Two months later, Duke coach David Cutcliffe hired Ben Albert to coach his team’s defensive linemen. Duke’s sack total jumped to 29 in each of the next two seasons before dropping back to 24 (tied for 11th in the ACC) during last season’s 8-5 campaign.

The Blue Devils (4-2, 2-1 ACC) already have 17 sacks through six games this season, tying them for eighth in the ACC.

With veteran starters like Dimukeje, McSwain, Cerenord, Derrick Tangelo, Drew Jordan and Tre Hornbuckle, Duke is confident they can keep adding more sacks while creating havoc with opposing offenses.

“I think we’ve played great up to this point,” Cerenord said. “We have a lot of older guys in that room. A lot of experienced guys. The leadership in our room with Tre, Trevon, myself we all try to lead those guys to water so we can go into every Saturday prepared and ready to win.”

In losing to Virginia in each of the last two seasons, the Blue Devils have recorded only three sacks in the two games. Last season, Perkins absorbed two sacks but rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another while leading the Cavaliers to a 28-14 win at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Though Virginia started the season 4-0 and zoomed into the AP Top 25 rankings, the Cavaliers have shown a weakness in quarterback protection of late. The Cavaliers have surrendered 13 sacks over the last two games, losses to Notre Dame and Miami.

Miami sacked Perkins five times, holding him to just 27 rushing yards on 17 attempts while beating the Cavaliers 17-9 last Friday night.

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall, speaking to reporters during his weekly press conference in Charlottesville on Monday, called his team’s pass protection an “ongoing work in progress.”

It clearly looks like an area for Duke to exploit, particularly with its improved defensive line play, in order to beat the Cavaliers for the first time since 2014.

“You always hope with this group that we now have that you can find some favorable matchups,” Cutcliffe said.

What it would mean to beat Virginia

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of Duke’s linemen winning one-on-one battles with opposing offensive linemen to get sacks and tackles for losses.

Other times, Duke must get creative on the fly with mid-game adjustments.

Take last Saturday against Georgia Tech when the Yellow Jackets used a back or tight end to help double-team Dimukeje early in the game. Some changes to the pass rushing schemes put Dimukeje in more one-on-one situations and he thrived.

Beating Virginia would guarantee Duke at least a share of the Coastal Division lead entering an emotional game at rival North Carolina the following Saturday. The ability to slow Perkins and the Cavaliers with strong line play will go a long way toward determining Duke’s chances for success.

“We have to be at the right levels, in the right lanes,” Cutcliffe said. “Pressure, be there in a hurry and you have to be decisive about what you are doing. That’s a big part of playing Virginia.”

The Blue Devils played against Georgia Tech last Saturday without Hornbuckle, a senior defensive end who was out with what the team called an upper body injury. Cutcliffe said Tuesday the expectation is Hornbuckle, who has started two games and played in three others this season, will be available against Virginia.

His presence will only add to the confidence Duke’s defensive linemen possess.

“Coach Albert came in and changed our culture along the defensive front,” Cerenord said. “Those guys are growing tremendously. The strides that we are making each year, getting more details into what we are doing and how we do it. It all comes back together to being the great defensive front that we are. We are going to continue to get better as the season goes on.”

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.