A big thank you to Mike Kline of DukeReport.com for helping us out with this. Be sure to drop over to their site to check out our answers to DR's questions!
STL: Last season Duke got to a bowl game for the first time since 1994, even after a late-season slide following a 6-2 start. But that team had a lot of seniors. What were the expectations of the Duke fan base coming into 2013?
DR: Well the Duke fans who actually care about Duke Football had a bit of a glow after last season's bowl but many were still unsure about how this team would do. Replacing two great players in Conner Vernon and Desmond Scott were tough but also replacing a 3-year starter in QB Sean Renfree had many worried about the offense. I think the schedule being sans Florida State and Clemson as well as a favorable non conference schedule had many feeling that a second straight bowl game was possible. I myself thought there could be as many as 7 or 8 wins possible if everything went right. Well it hasn't but they have probably met and possibly exceeded most's expectations given what has transpired.
STL: Through the first six games, what's surprised you the most about this year's squad—positively or negatively?
DR: Obviously the offense's ability to still put up points with Anthony Boone hurt has been a positive. The improved running game has also been a big plus taking pressure off of the quarterback whether its Boone or Brandon Connette. The numbers aren't eye popping but this is the best rushing Duke team since Cutcliffe has been in Durham. They have four capable backs in Jela Duncan, Juwan Thompson, Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell and all could get carries against UVa.
Duke has done as well as I could hope being 4-2 at this point, though 5-1 was a real possibility if the defense could have gotten a few more stops against Pitt. They took care of business in all four non-conference games which is exactly what they needed to do to get back to a bowl. Now they have to find a way to get two more wins in conference play. It will be tough but I think they can do it.
STL: Head coach David Cutcliffe is renowned for his offensive wizardry; his results with the Manning brothers speak for themselves. His Duke teams have featured some pretty high-scoring offenses. What's the thing that makes that offensive engine work in Durham?
DR: I think Cutcliffe's ability to evolve his offense based on the personnel he has and who he can get has been the biggest his biggest success. He doesn't try to force players into his system or limit himself to recruiting just those guys that can fit. He obviously has an idea of what he wants to do offensively but he gets the best players he can get and he, with the help of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, molds the offense around the players he has. He doesn't always get the biggest, strongest guys, but he gets guys who can be coached, who have speed and who are versatile and can make plays.
STL: On the other side of the ball, the defensive units have been less than stellar: Football Outsiders ranks the Duke defense near the bottom of most of its metrics. Who are the playmakers to look out for on defense, and where are the holes?
DR: Duke has struggled defensively to stay healthy. Against Pitt they were without a starting safety and their best linebacker and then lost a backup linebacker. Against Navy they lost one of their regular defensive linemen for the rest of the season with an ankle injury. To add to that they are extremely young in the secondary save for Ross Cockrell and have been exploited this year at times. (see Pitt). The line has struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, especially in the first half of games but they stepped it up big time against a pretty respectable Navy offense last week. Kenny Anunike is the heart and soul of the defensive line and Kelby Brown was healthy enough to be back for Navy and survived and should be good to go Saturday.
If Duke can't get pressure on Virginia's quarterback then UVa will have a field day through the air. Duke has been much better against the run but still show vulnerability on the outside runs and 3rd and long continue to be an Achilles heel.
STL: You guys went toe-to-toe with Pitt earlier this year in a 58-55 barnburner. The UVa team that stifled Pitt's attack has regressed toward the mean since—a good thing on offense, but a bad one on defense. Meanwhile, Duke has dropped a game to Georgia Tech, just snuck past Troy, and put it all together in a 35-7 drubbing of Navy last week. This week could be a pivotal moment in both teams' seasons. End of the day: Who ya got?
DR: Well I think this is a very interesting game from the standpoint that it these teams come in with complete opposite mindsets. Duke is confident and UVa, has to be rattled after dropping their last three including last weeks heart breaker to Maryland. I think UVa comes in the game fired up and will try to right the ship against a team that the Cavaliers have no love for after losing 4 of the last 5 in the series. This is a game Duke can win but I don't think for a second that UVa is done and I'm pretty sure Mike London will have his team fired up to play and play well at home.
I'm going to go homer here and pick Duke in a tight moderately high scoring affair 35-32 but honestly I am not going to be surprised at all if Virginia wins. It all depends on if Duke's defense can get stops and if Anthony Boone can lead the Duke offense like he did against Navy.