The Hoos lost a heartbreaker last week, as their last minute drive ended in a missed FG. The Hoos outplayed the Terps and should've won, but poor executive in the red zone and some (more) coaching blunders decided the Hoos fate. Duke, on the other hand, is on a two game winning streak, although against two undermatched opponents. Last week, they beat Navy 35-7. While the Blue Devils are 4-2, Navy is probably their best win and they are 0-2 in the ACC.
The Hoos simply have to come away with a W this week. They are at home and favored by 3, which is basically a pick-em. But the Hoos are not likely to be favored in any more games this season, and they simply need to turn the season around. A bowl game is a pipe dream at this point, but getting some wins and some momentum for next season would be key. A win here would begin that process.
It won't be easy, as this isn't the Duke of the past. Duke has a very potent offense, and an opportunistic defense. They've also beaten the Hoos in 4 of the past 5 matchups, including a 42-17 drubbing last year. The last matchup in Scott Stadium went the Hoos way 31-21.
WR: #87 Max McCaffrey - 6'2" 190 lb, Sophomore; #3 Jamison Crowder - 5'9" 175 lb, Junior; #5 Brandon Braxton - 6'1" 210 lb, Senior; #83 Anthony Nash - 6'5" 200 lb, RS Freshman; #81 Jack Wise - 6'4" 195 lb, Junior; #17 Issac Blakeney - 6'6" 235 lb, Junior
LT: #73 Takoby Cofield - 6'4" 305 lb, Junior; #66 Carson Ginn - 6'6" 300 lb, Sophomore
LG: #74 Dave Harding - 6'4" 285 lb, Senior; #67 Lucas Patrick - 6'4" 310 lb, Sophomore
C: #62 Matt Skura - 6'4" 290 lb, Sophomore; #70 John Coleman - 6'4" 290 Senior
RG: #77 Laken Tomlinson - 6'3" 320 lb, Junior; #65 Cody Robinson - 6'3" 300 lb, Sophomore
RT: #72 Perry Simmons - 6'5" 300 lb, Senior; #75 Sam Marshall - 6'7" 285 lb, Sophomore
When you consider what Duke lost off last year's 55th ranked offense, it is impressive that they've remained productive. Sean Renfree, a 3 year starter and one of the top QBs in Duke's history, graduated. Conner Vernon, a 4 year starter and Duke's all-time leading receiver, graduated. Also gone is a 4 year starter at Center in Brian Moore and a 4 year contributor all over the field in Desmond Scott. Scott had over 1000 yards rushing, receiving and on returns in his career, during which he played both RB and WR.
That is a lot of senior production to turn over. But the Blue Devils haven't lost a step. In fact, their offense is better. They've gone from 409 yards per game to 448 yards per game. The biggest improvement has come on the ground, where they've gone from 125 yards per game to 183 yards per game. That is the difference between ranking 98th in nation to ranking 54th. Their passing game is a bit worse, going from 31st ranked to 42nd ranked. But the efficiency has actually gotten better, from 67th ranked to 20th. That increase in efficiency is likely related to the increased production from the ground game.
The Hoos defense, on the other hand, has been inconsistent. Devastatingly good one week, and then completely falling apart the next week. They're still ranked 39th in the nation, but teams have been able to move the ball on them successfully. That 39th ranking would be a lot nicer if they weren't ranked 71st in scoring defense. That is largely due to a terrible turnover ratio, not really a fault of the defense.
Duke's offensive production is even more impressive when you consider that starting QB Anthony Boone missed two games. Backup Brandon Connette was fantastic in relief and Duke didn't miss a beat. The two QBs are similar, which certainly helped in the transition. Both are strong guys, with good running skills and strong arms. Connette is a bit more dangerous as a runner, especially in the open field. Boone is a more accurate passer, who is more likely to use his legs to buy time for the passing game, rather than just take off downfield. Connette has carried the ball 61 times (including sacks) for 224 yards. Boone has carried the ball just 14 times (again, including sacks) for 44 yards. The average is about the same, but Boone is less likely to take off.
Duke's top RB is Jela Duncan, but he's missed the past couple of games after injuring both shoulders against Troy. Thompson is the biggest back of the group, and has gotten some goalline touches with Duncan out. Snead is the fastest of the group (and one of the fastest on the team) and is the big play threat. The Hoos should also watch for the WR Crowder lining up in the backfield. He is small, and often gets lost in the backfield. Then he'll slip out and take a dump off 25 yards. Crowder also returns punts and he's 4th in the nation and has returned 2 punts for scores this season.
Crowder is the leading receiver on the team with 47 receptions for 618 yards. He has more than twice as many catches as anybody else, and more than 3 times as many yards. McCaffrey is another guy to watch, he's not the fastest guy, but he's got great hands and he's a good route runner. His father is Ed McCaffrey, who played 13 seasons in the NFL and won 3 rings. (He also has an uncle who played basketball at Duke and was on the 1991 NCAA championship team.)
The TE Deaver is a good receiving option, with big play ability. He's one to watch on seam routes, as well as around the red zone. Blakeney is another guy who is dangerous around the red zone. He's started twice this year, and despite being 5th on the team in receptions he is 1st in TDs. A great deal of Duke's red zone points come on the ground, often with the QB. (Connette has 6 rushing TDs and Boone has 2. Annoyingly, this is something the Hoos could learn from. Watford's running ability would be amplified in the red zone, where the defense has less ground to cover. One more body to keep track of is a decided advantage there.)
With Boone back at QB, Duke is going to pass more than they'll run. In their blowout win over Navy last week, they had 39 pass attempts and 37 rushes (which includes sacks and scrambles). Expect to see similar ratios against the Hoos, who have been better against the run than against the pass this season. This type of offense also suits their OL, which is better at pass blocking than run blocking. Or, at least, better than tradition run blocking. The read-option based rushes that we've seen so much of this season requires less traditional drive blocking than a pro-set running game. Duke's OL is a better fit for that offense.
That OL is a big part of why Brandon Connette was so successful stepping in for Boone. They are good, they are experienced and they play well together. Cofield is a good OT who may play on Sundays. Skura also may play on Sundays if he continues to develop his game. He is a natural OC who doesn't make mistakes. While Duke's OL isn't going to blow people away, especially against the run, their cohesion and intelligence makes it better than the sum of its parts.
If Urban is unable to go, that will be a big loss for the Hoos. While Donte Wilkins is a solid player in the middle, and Jake Snyder was successful when moving inside last week, the truth is that Urban has been arguably the best player on this defense and his ability to single-handedly breakdown the inside of an OL was so valuable. The status of Tra Nicholson is also up in the air, and as we saw last week, that is a big loss. His ability to cover the opposition's top receiver is unmatched on the Hoos, and the dropoff from him to Tim Harris or DreQuan Hoskey is huge.
The other big news out of the Virginia defense is that Brandon Phelps may lose his starting gig to Rijo Walker. Readers may recall that I have been howling to the moon about this for the better part of 2 years. Phelps is simply not a safety. He's a CB playing safety, and that is making him hesitant and slow. He moved to FS (from SS) this offseason and that helped somewhat. But Phelps is still not getting it done. Walker is a more natural safety, while still possessing the cover skills needed to play FS for Jon Tenuta. It is about time Walker got his shot.
Duke's defense has been up and down, giving up well over 500 yards and 58 points to a Pitt offense that couldn't get anything against the Hoos. They also gave up over 500 yards and 31 points to Troy. Then, they completely shut down Navy, forcing 3 turnovers and keeping them to just 7 points. They also held Memphis to just 238 total yards and 14 points. Memphis's offense isn't very explosive.
Duke's defense ranks 55th in the nation, and 52nd in scoring defense. They are 84th in rushing defense, but that may be skewed by two games against triple option based attacks (Georgia Tech and Navy). This also helps explain their 37th ranked passing defense, but 96th ranked passing efficiency defense.
Another explanation for Duke's struggles against the run is the 4-2-5 scheme that they run. Pretty much by definition, a nickel defense is going to be better against the pass than against the run. Even good safeties are normally less comfortable against the run. And with 5 smaller DBs on the field, it is going to be tougher for Duke to consistently bring down bigger RBs.
On some levels, the Hoos offense matches up well here. The Hoos are much better running the ball than they are passing it. And when passing the ball, the Hoos are (very)inefficient. The Hoos have upgraded their OL by shifting personnel around the last few weeks, and the improvements to the ground game have led to back-to-back hundred yard rushing games for Kevin Parks.
Duke's DL is led by 6th year senior Kenny Anunike, who leads the team with 7 TFLs and 3 sacks. Anunike came in as a TE (which explains his jersey #) and has just 12 sacks in his career entering this season. He's been around for a long time, but has really only spent 3 seasons (including this one) on the field. His 2011 season was lost to injury after 4 games, which is why he was granted a 6th year of eligibility.
Sarmiento is another solid veteran DL. He's basically a 4 year starter, but he's never been super productive. He is good at occupying blockers, but he's never been a playmaker on his own right.
A 4-2-5 defense needs good LBs. Those two guys are required to be all over the field. They are going to make a majority of the tackles on the ground and also must be able to handle short zones. Kelby Brown and David Helton fit the bill. They are 2-3 in tackles, but combine for over 20% of the defense's total tackles. They aren't asked to do much blitzing, but Brown has shown that he's capable of getting to the passes from time to time. Kyler Brown is Kelby's younger brother and has looked good in a reserve role.
As you'd expect, Duke's 4-2-5 defense is led by the DBs. In this case, particularly by the 3 safeties. Duke's 3 safeties are Strike, Bandit and Rover. The Strike is closest to a normal free safety, and is manned by Jeremy Cash. He is a former Ohio State DB who transferred to Duke after 2 years. He was playing regularly for OSU as a true freshman, so clearly he's a player. He leads the team in tackles, he's 2nd in TFLs and he has 2 INTs, 4 passes defended and a forced fumble. In short, he's been the best player on the defense. Watford will have to keep an eye on Cash on every play.
The Bandit is Dwayne Norman, who started 5 games last year as a true freshman. He's 4th on the team in tackles, despite missing a game. His position is the wild-card, and is often used as an extra LB. The past two Bandits were Matt Daniels and Walt Canty, both All-ACC selections. Norman isn't as good as either of them were, but then again he's just a sophomore.
The Rover is close to a traditional strong safety, and both players are listed as co-starters. McCarthy started the first 3 games of the season, but Young-Wiseman took over the starting gig and has been the better performer. I'm guessing we'll see a lot of Young-Wiseman and not very much of the freshman. McCarthy may yet be a star, the Duke coaching staff is high on him. But he was out of position far too often earlier this season.
Cockrell is 4 years starter and is easily the team's best cover man. He had 9 INTs coming into the season, and though he has just 1 on the season, he is tied (with Cash) for the team lead in passes defensed. Cockrell will play on Sundays and could even be a 2nd or 3rd round pick depending on how he runs at the combine. Opposite Cockrell, Patterson isn't nearly as good, seeing most of his action on special teams prior to this season. He can be beaten deep. Look for the Hoos to attack him if they can get a good matchup on his side of the field. Patterson isn't likely to be in man coverage much, but when he is, the Hoos need to take advantage.
Duke's defense is on the smallish side, even for a team running a base nickel package. Teams with bigger RBs have done well against them. Perhaps the punishing, downhill running style of LaChaston Smith could have some success. Then again, Parks is a downhill runner who is playing very well. Maybe I'm just hoping Smith didn't burn his redshirt for 3 minutes of garbage time against VMI. Regardless, look for the Hoos to run the ball a lot. If Duke is going to load the box in an attempt to slow down the ground game, then Watford has to make them pay by hitting some deep passes. If Watford sees Cash and Norman in the box, and Patterson alone on the outside against Tim Smith or Keeon Johnson, he needs to take a shot deep. Even an incomplete pass would make Duke think twice about creeping their safeties up. And obviously completing a deep pass would be huge for a struggling offense.
The Virginia offense has looked a lot better the past two weeks, including over 500 yards against a good Maryland defense last week. They're still struggling in the red zone, but hopefully that is just a matter of time. Some more inventive playcalling around the goalline would help too.
Duke Special Teams
PK: #35 Ross Martin - 5'9" 185 lb, Sophomore
P: #41 Will Monday - 6'4" 210 lb, Sophomore
KR: #27 Edwards; #28 Shaquille Powell, 5'10" 195 lb, Sophomore
As previously mentioned, Crowder is one of the top PRs in the nation. The Hoos punt coverage has been much improved over last season, and that will have to continue. Vozenilek hasn't made it easy, as opponents have returned just 12 out of his 42 punts.
The Blue Devils KR game is much less dynamic, and the Hoos have actually been solid there, even without Ian Frye taking the KOs the past few weeks.
Frye's absence hasn't hurt that much, as Vozenilek is 6-7 on the season with a long of 39. Yes, his one miss was the game winner last week, which was disappointing, but it wasn't an easy kick and there's no guarantee that Frye would've made it.
The Hoos special teams haven't been quite the disaster that they were last year, but they are still far from a strength. Hopefully, the Hoos can pull off a big play on special teams this week. That would really help their struggling offense.
As I mentioned, this will almost definitely be the last game the Hoos are favored in. With 6 games to go, the Hoos need a win if there is any hope of a bowl game. A loss here and the season is over.
Duke is coming off two out of conference wins. Last week's win over Navy was impressive on paper, but Navy simply didn't play very well.return bolstered their offense which was enough.
Boone will have another week to get back into the swing of things. The Hoos defense simply must regain the swagger and confidence they had early this season. Getting Tra Nicholson back would also help, as would Brent Urban. The status of both is uncertain at press time. (Note: Both are out this week. That will make things tough on the Hoos defense.)
I really want to pick the Hoos. I really think the Hoos are on the cusp of breaking through and I think Duke is a little bit overrated. The Hoos really haven't been able to capitalize on their opponent's mistakes, other than BYU. And they've made far too many mistakes of their own. Still, despite my reservations, I think the Hoos are due for some good fortune, and the improvements they've made on the OL are ready to actually bear fruit.
Prediction: Hoos 30, Blue Devils 24