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2014 Virginia Football Preview: Duke

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At 4-2, the Hoos are looking to get one step closer to a bowl game. They can also begin to put some space between them and their opposition in the Coastal division. If Pitt manages to beat Virginia Tech, and UNC manages to beat Georgia Tech (both Pitt and UNC are at home), the Hoos would have a full game lead and a tiebreaker in the division.

Kevin Parks is looking for a repeat performance of his game against Pitt.
Kevin Parks is looking for a repeat performance of his game against Pitt.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

George Welsh coached the Hoos from 1982 through 2000. He lost to Duke 5 times. Al Groh coached the Hoos from 2001-2009. He lost to Duke 2 times (the last two matchups). Mike London has coached the Hoos for 4 years and already lost to Duke 3 times.

In total, the Hoos have lost 5 of the past 6 matchups to the Blue Devils. This includes last year's matchup, in which the Hoos led 22-0 and fell 35-22. With Duke winning 10 games last year and playing in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl that loss doesn't seem too bad, at least on paper. Duke is clearly an improved team over the team that the Hoos beat in 16 out of 20 games during the 90s and 2000s. Still, consistently losing to Duke in football isn't fun.

Then again, we have this:

The main reason for Duke's turnaround in football is head coach David Cutcliffe. He was the national coach of the year last year in college football. He has guided Duke to a 36-45 record during his 7 years which may not seem like much, but is impressive considering the team had won 10 games over the previous 8 seasons prior to his hiring.

All told, the Hoos have a 33-32 record over the Blue Devils in a rivalry that goes back to 1890. It would be nice to stay over .500 against the Dookies. That requires a win this week. This will be Duke's homecoming game.

Duke Offense

Players To Watch

#7 QB Anthony Boone - Small, thickly built QB with plus athleticism for the position. Not necessarily a true dual-threat QB, but has the ability to get out and run. Will also use his feet to get out of the pocket and make plays with his arm. Has very good arm strength and outstanding touch on timing routes, such as the fade. Has good ball skills, such as on play-action. Has thrown for over 3000 yards in his career, completing over 60% of his passes, with a 19:16 INT:TD ratio. Last year, completed 64% for 2260 yards and 13:13. Already thrown for 1186 this year, with 8:3, but completing only 57% of his passes.

#1 QB Thomas Sirk - Backup QB who possesses very good running skills. Used in short yardage and goalline situations for the Blue Devils and leads the team with 5 rushing TDs. Has also thrown a TD. Averages over 7 yards per carry. Hasn't thrown many passes this year. Struggles with his mechanics at times.

#28 RB Shaquille Powell - Well rounded RB with good strength and speed. Not a blazer, but runs with purpose. Good between-the-tackles, north-south runner. Similar running style to Kevin Parks. One-cut guy who hits the hole hard and doesn't stop. Not a real elusive guy, but will run through tackles. Did not play last week against Georgia Tech. Third on team with 200 yards rushing on 41 carries this year, 2 TDs. Has rushed for over 600 yards and 4 TDs in his career.

#9 RB Josh Snead - Small, quick RB with very good speed. Not really a true every-down back, due to lack of size. Has very good change of pace and change of direction skills. Good vision. Makes quick cuts and gets upfield quickly. Works well in the spread offense because of his ability to find holes and get through them. Has rushed for nearly 1600 in his career, with nearly 5.5 yards per carry and 7 TDs. Leads team with 49 carries on the season.

#3 WR Jamison Crowder - Very quick and explosive WR and PR who is one of the best open-field runner in the nation. Lines up mostly in the slot, which usually gives him a free release. Used on a variety of routes, but often on underneath routes, where he can get the ball and turn upfield. Runs good routes, uses his shiftiness to make sharp cuts and get away from DBs. Caught 108 balls for 1360 yards and 8 TDs last year, coming off 76 grabs for 1074 yards as a sophomore in 2012. Leads the team with 32 catches for 372 yards 0this year with 2 TDs. Currently 4th all-time ACC receptions in the ACC. Has 2 or more receptions in 34 consecutive games. Had two punt return TDs last year and continues to return punts.

#87 WR Max McAffrey - Son of longtime NFL WR Ed McAffrey. Plays the game in the same way. Not the shiftiest of WRs, but good straightline speed. Tall and lanky, plays with high football IQ. Knows how to get open, and will catch the ball when it gets to him. Not really a big play guy, but a very good possession WR. Totaled 26 receptions for 282 yards last year with 4 TDs. Has 23 receptions for 236 yards already this year, with 3 TDs.

Offense Breakdown

David Cutcliffe is an offensive guy and a QB guru. He's worked with both Peyton and Eli Manning. He's developed some pretty good QBs at Duke in Thaddeus Lewis and Sean Renfree. Anthony Boone is another QB who has developed tremendously under Cutcliffe. Boone, however is a different type of QB, and has led to a different type of offense. The chart below shows the national rankings for Duke's offense, broken down by passing and rushing, over the Cutcliffe era.

Year

Offense

Rush

Pass

2014

50

23

92

2013

47

54

50

2012

55

98

31

2011

79

115

28

2010

59

104

22

2009

69

120

9

2008

102

103

75

After the first year, Cutcliffe's offenses have enjoyed about the same level of success. How they've gotten there, however, has changed dramatically. The ground game has gotten progressively better, which the passing game has dropped. Part of that is due to personnel. With guys like Connor Vernon, Donovan Varner and Crowder, there has been a lot of talent at WRs. And the QBs I've already mentioned have had the passing ability to go with it.

Last year, Duke ran 544 times and threw 472 passes. In 2012, they ran 439 times and passed 551 times. In 2011, they ran 365 times and passed 493 times. And this year, so far, they've run 235 times and passed 223 times.

Some of that is because of matchups and game situations. For example, in last year's matchup with NC Central (a bad FCS team), Duke ran the ball 45 times versus 28 passes. Against the Hoos, they ran 44 times and passed 40. And against FSU, they ran it just 31 times and passed 42 times.

Looking at the boxscore from last week's game, it seems like Duke is a running team. Averaging 5.1 yards per rush will do that. And averaging just 5.0 yards per pass attempt also points to a running team. However, Duke hit on a couple of big pass plays and Max McAffrey had a short TD catch. The Yellow Jackets have struggled to stop anybody from running the ball, and have been tough against the pass. On the other hand, Miami has also been much better against the pass than the rush so far this year, and Duke couldn't run the ball at all against the Canes. So maybe there is no correlation and the Miami game was just a bad day from Duke.

Duke is going to spread their offense out across the field and try to beat the Hoos by getting the ball into space. That may mean quick passes to Crowder. It may mean quick slants to McAffrey. We'll likely see some read-option, especially in short yardage situations, where Thomas Kirk comes in. But the bulk of the Duke offense is expected to come from the RBs.

Duke uses a three-headed attack at RB. The starter is Powell, and he's the workhorse. But Snead actually leads the team in carries (caveat: Powell missed last week but led the team in carries prior to that). Leading the team in rushing is actually true freshman Shaun Wilson. Nearly half of his yards, however, came on 3 big runs against Kansas. Obviously, Wilson has the ability to go the distance, but the Hoos defense will provide more of a barrier than Kansas did.

Stopping the run will be the number 1 priority for the Hoos. Against Pittsburgh, the Hoos spent more time in a base defense than they had, perhaps, all season prior. Expect to see a fair amount of that again this week. You may recall that Pittsburgh has one WR (Tyler Boyd), who is a huge threat in the passing game. Duke is similar, with Jamison Crowder. The Hoos will likely be comfortable keeping tabs on him and allowing the rest of the Duke WR corps to see a lot of one-on-one coverage. Keeping the ball out of Crowder's hands will go a long way towards slowing down Duke's passing game. That, of course, makes it easier to shut down the running game.

The main difference between Duke's running game and Pitts is speed. While Pitt's James Connor is a very good RB, he's not the fastest of RBs. Josh Snead is very fast, and Shaun Wilson is also fast. (Powell, on the other hand, may not be any faster than Connor.) The Hoos have a fast defense, but Snead is certainly capable of turning in a big play. A single big play could turn this game.

The Wahoo defense is predicated on big plays. They want sacks. They want turnovers. And they want to score off the turnovers. This has works so far this year. Duke will provide a different challenge though. Duke, so far at least, hasn't allowed many big plays by opposing defenses. They've allowed just 4 sacks through 6 games. They've allowed just 20 TFLs through 6 games. And they've turned it over just 5 times in 6 games. Two of those turnovers came against Miami, in Duke's only loss.

One reason Duke hasn't had many big plays against their offense is their OL. The veteran unit with 112 total combined starts is led by RG Laken Tomlinson (45 career starts, and an Outland Award nominee) and OC Matt Skura (20, and a Rimington Award nominee). The line averages 307 pounds, and they are tough to beat. The Hoos have speedy pass rushers unlike what Duke has seen thus far this year. Guys like Max Valles and Eli Harold may have some success rushing off the edge. But the Hoos have had a great deal of success in recent weeks getting to QBs up the middle with Mike Moore and Henry Coley. That may not work this week.

Certainly, Jon Tenuta will have some wrinkles thrown in for Duke that will help. A few stunts and things like that may help loosen up the Duke OL, but Tenuta may be hesitant to use those kind of plays early on, because they can leave a defense susceptible to running plays.

Stopping the run, especially early on, will be a key. When Powell is in (or Wilson for that matter), the key will be run fits and gap responsibilities. These guys are one-cut runners who want to get upfield quickly. Making sure they can't get into the secondary with a head of steam is important. When Snead is in, the bigger concern is maintaining the edge. Do not lead Snead get outside with speed, because he could be gone in a flash. The Hoos have had tremendous support in the run game from safeties Anthony Harris and Quin Blanding this year. That will have to continue this week, because Duke's OL is good enough to keep their RBs free from the DLs and LBs. There simply aren't enough OLs, however, to handle the DBs as well.

Duke Defense

Players to Watch

#94 DE Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo - Tall, lanky DE. Probably Duke's best passer, almost by default. Replaces Kenny Anunike, but isn't quite the athlete that Anunike is (currently on IR with the Broncos). Quick off the snap but not particularly fast, especially for a 240 pound DE. Can get manhandled a bit at the point of attack by bigger OTs. Best when coming off the edge as a pass rusher, or in pursuit. Good edge contain, doesn't get beat outside very much. Has missed a lot of time due to injuries.

#47 MLB David Helton - Big, strong LB who normally plays OLB. Sure tackler, very good at filling running lanes. Moves well through space. Uses strength to take on OLs and shed blocks. Solid in pass coverage, especially in zone defense. Led team with 133 tackles last year and leads team with 55 this year.

#14 CB Byron Fields - Very quick, but not ideal top-end speed for a small CB. Plays bigger than he is, works very hard. Anticipates well. Very good leaper, will compete for jump balls and often win over bigger WRs. Very good hands for the INT. Played extensively as a true freshman last year, starting once. Finished with 6 passed broken up. Has 2 passes defensed this year, to go along with 31 tackles and recorded his first career INT against Tulane.

#16 SS Jeremy Cash - Originally an Ohio State recruit, played 5 games for Ohio State as a true freshman. 1st team All-ACC and 2nd team All-American last season at S. Thorpe Award watch list for nation's best DB. Big, strong, fast DB. Best playing near the line of scrimmage, but capable of playing deep zone as well. Covers a lot of ground with a long stride. Can lay a hit, but doesn't look to lay a big hit. Best coming up on the ball, can get turned around when coverage the ball over his head. Last season: 2nd in tackles with 121, 3rd in TFLs with 9.5, first in INTs with 4, 2 fumbles forced and 2 recovered. This season: T-2 in tackles with 52, T-1 in TFLs with 5, 2nd in sacks with 1.5, T-1 in INTs with 2, 2 fumbles forced and 1 recovered.

#27 RS DeVon Edwards - Very small for a S, at just 175 pounds. Plays bigger. Extremely fast. Has also played some CB, and would need to move to CB if he has any hope of playing in the NFL. Has good hands, and is a threat to take any INT back for a TD. Finished 5th on team with 64 tackles last year, and 3rd in INTs with 3 (2 returned for TD) (as a redshirt freshman who started just 7 games. Tied with Cash for 2nd on team with 52 tackles this year. First in passes defensed, with 6. Also returns kicks, and is one of the best KR in the nation. Had two KRs for TD last year.Named to pre-season watch lists for Paul Hornung Award (most versatile player in the nation) and a pre-season All American at KR.

Defense Breakdown

This is yet another team that plays a nickel defense as its base system. Previously, the Hoos have seen a few teams play in a hybrid defense, but the Blue Devils are not like that. They are simply a 4-2-5 with 3 safeties (a strike safety, a rover safety and a bandit safety). Despite the names, the 3 safeties are basically used interchangeably. Jeremy Cash may line up at the line of scrimmage on play, and 10 yards off on the next play. DeVon Edwards may do the same.

The plan coming into the season was to have two upperclassman LBs playing in front of the 5 DBs. Then, Kelby Brown hurt his knee during training camp and will miss the entire season. That changed the plan. It forced Helton to move inside from his regular WLB position. It also forced redshirt freshman Chris Holmes onto the field before he was ready.

Having 2 great safeties behind the LBs has helped a lot. Especially when you consider the loss of CB Ross Cockrell and the loss of DE Kenny Anunike. That is a lot of talent that Duke has had to replace this season. Not surprisingly, with such a good backfield, Duke's pass defense is outstanding. They are 3rd nationally in pass efficiency defense, and 16th in pass yards allowed. Also not surprising is their 100th ranking in rush defense. (And that isn't only due to having playing GT, because the Jackets only rushed for 282 yards, which is less than their season average.)

The Blue Devils front 4 is made up of 3 seniors and a junior. Of the group, only Jamal Bruce started a game last year. Despite all that time on the roster, there isn't a ton of playing experience there. It's not a particularly big group either, with Carlos Wray topping out at 290 pounds. They can be pushed around. The Wahoo OL has looked better and better as the season has gone on, and this could be a week for a real breakout performance.

The Hoos should be able to run the ball. Duke, of course, knows this, and will bring Jeremy Cash up towards the LOS to help stop the run. Between Cash and Helton, the Blue Devils will have two very good tacklers and run stoppers behind the DL. But the Hoos have WRs and TEs who are good blockers, if they can get into the second level and put a block on the back 7, Kevin Parks and company could have some big plays. Parks, in particular, looked very good against Pitt. Parks was due for a breakout game and 169 yards certainly qualifies. He could do something similar again if the OL continues to block the way they did.

Duke's secondary is full of ball-hawks. That means whichever Wahoo QB is in the game will have to be careful. The Hoos have thrown 9 INTs in their 6 games, which is far too many. Duke has 8 INTs in their 6 games, and that is with only 11 sacks. They don't generate much pass rush, but they play very tight against WRs and they take advantage of QB mistakes.

One place where the Hoos have an advantage is their bigger WRs. Duke's CBs are both around 180 pounds, which means Andre Levrone, Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins all have 30+ pounds on the opposition. That means they should be able to get clean releases off the line, and it means they should be able to win jump balls. A hitch route, where the WR uses his body to "box-out" the defender, could be useful, especially on 3rd downs.

This could also be a week for Zach Swanson and the TEs to break out. As a group, they have just 4 catches on the season. Duke probably isn't overly concerned about the TEs. But if Helton and Cash are so concerned with stopping the run, Swanson will largely be watched by Holmes and Edwards. Both Swanson and Rob Burns have a lot of size on those guys. The danger, of course, with throwing passes over the middle to the TEs, is the safeties behind them coming up and getting a pick. This is where Rob Burns' 6'7" frame could come in handy. Again, on a third down, Burns could run a hitch or a short post route and use his body to get the ball without much interference.

Regardless of who plays QB, look for the Hoos to run the ball a lot. It may be boring, and it may be predictable, but it's also the best way to beat this Duke defense. It reduces the chances of turnovers (although Jeremy Cash is very good at stripping the ball from a RB), and it keeps the clock running and Duke's potent offense off the field.

The Hoos offense has gotten better in recent weeks. Duke has given up 22 and 24 points in their two ACC games, after giving up a max of 17 in their first 4 games. Those first 4 games were against some of the worst offenses in the nation. Georgia Tech moved the ball very well against Duke, but was taken down by 2 INTs, one of which came just shy of the endzone. Turnovers will be the biggest problem for the offense in this game.

Game Breakdown

Even with Duke's improvement over the past few years, there is no excuse to losing 5 out of 6 to Duke. There is really no excuse to losing 5 out of 6 to anybody. Last year's game was very disappointing, because the Hoos had a lead and then were completely outplayed in the 2nd half. Already three times this year, the Hoos have had leads at halftime and lost, or nearly lost, those leads.

That can't happen this week on the road. A fast start would be great, but more importantly, the Hoos need to finish strong. With the way the Wahoo defense has played, a 22-0 lead would be quite a bit more daunting than it was last year. But that doesn't mean it would be insurmountable.

Special teams is another big factor in this game. Duke has two tremendous talents at PR and KR, and the Hoos have given up some big returns over the past few weeks. That simply can't happen this week. The Hoos defense is too good for Duke's offense to consistently go the length of the field against them. So, giving Duke a short field due to a big return would be costly.

Against Pitt, the Hoos won 24-19 and it seems like this game could be a similar type of game. The Blue Devils are favored by 2.5 at home, which is about equal to a neutral site pick-em.

Prediction: Hoos 27, Duke 20