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The Big Preview: Playing Out the String

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The Hoos season is, for all intents and purposes, over. They are 3-7, and have clinched a 4th straight losing season. Mike London is probably getting fired at season's end. There is nothing to play for other than pride. But make no mistake, these kids are proud. They want to win. They're going to play hard and the fans should support them.

Is Mike London in the final stretch of his coaching career?
Is Mike London in the final stretch of his coaching career?
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

First off, let me apologize for not putting together a postgame article after last week's loss to Louisville. I simply couldn't come up with anything original to say. The offense turned the ball over too much. The defense gave up too many big plays. And the special teams units can't get out of their own way. In other words, the exact same thing that I would've said every other week this season. It's getting hard to keep writing the same thing.

Moving on, the Hoos return home to face Duke. The same Duke that went 13-90 between 1999 and 2007 has now beaten the Hoos 6 out of the past 7 times they've played. Mike London has only beaten Duke once. The last time these two teams played at Scott Stadium, the Hoos opened up a 22 -0 lead and then lost 35-22.

Prior to Halloween night, the Blue Devils were on fire, having won 4 in a row and 6 of 7. They were at home, facing the Hurricanes for a chance to go 4-0 in the ACC. And then the play happened. I'm sure you've seen it by now. The Blue Devils lost that game, and then proceeded to get utterly smoked by UNC and then lose another home game, this time to Pitt.

Now the Blue Devils are reeling. They're 3-3 in conference, though they are already bowl eligible. They have no chance to win the division, but with two game remaining they can still win 8 games.

The Hoos, as we all know, have clinched yet another losing season. Yet another winnable game was lost in the waning moments.

Mike London and the Hoos have talked about wanting to finish the season out with a couple of wins. With two home games remaining, that is certainly a possibility. The question on the minds of fans is, would two home wins save Mike London's job?

Duke Offense

Duke's offense is 100% led by QB Thomas Sirk. He has been dealing with an upper body injury, which is a big part of why the Blue Devils lost to Pitt. In the previous two losses, the Duke offense was decent. Against Pitt, they accumulated just 361 total yards (well below their season average of 426) and they turned it over 3 times (they'd turned it over just 12 times in the previous 8 games).

Sirk is listed as the starter on Duke's depth chart, but there is still a chance that he sits. His backup Parker Boehme, actually played fairly well against Pitt, throwing for 248 yards and rushing for 80 and a TD. He threw a pick, and also lost a fumble which came with less than 2 minutes left in the contest. Without a doubt, it was not Boehme's fault that Duke lost. Still, they are a better team with Sirk in the backfield.

The offense doesn't change, as both QBs are similar in style. They use a lot of read option, and a lot of play action off of that. Almost every play, including in passing situations, will begin with a read option look. Sirk leads the team in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing TDs. Boehme is, perhaps, a better runner than Sirk. Though he is not the polished passer that Sirk is.

Senior Shaquille Powell is the top RB, both statistically and on the depth chart. But sophomore Shaun Wilson and junior Jela Duncan will also get touched at RB. The two backups have combined for roughly the same amount of carries as Powell, although some of that has come in garbage time situations.

Over the past few years, Duke has had some of the top WRs in the nation. Beginning with Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner and more recently Jamison Crowder, Duke WRs have rewritten their record book over the past 6 years. While none of Duke's current WR are quite that talented, leading receiver Max McAffrey is pretty good. He's got 42 receptions for 503 yards on the year. He's a similar player to what his father was in the NFL; A bigger WR who can go over the middle and make tough catches, but can also come up with a big play from time to time. Also he has great hands. Starting opposite McAffrey has been Johnell Barnes, but he's been dismissed from the team this week. So, Anthony Nash will start in his place. Nash is more similar to McAffrey than to Barnes. Barnes' speed was a complement to McAffrey's ability to go over the middle. Nash doesn't have quite as much speed. Senior TE Braxton Deaver is also a threat in the passing game, though he has just 15 catches on the season. He had 46 catches in 2013, but missed all of last year with a knee injury.

Duke's OL is a big unit, led by 305 lb senior OC Matt Skura. LG Lucas Patrick, also a senior, is another good one. While none of these guys are elite talents, they play well together. Duke is 5th in the nation in fewest sacks allowed, although much of that is due to the elusiveness of Sirk and Boehme. Most of these guys are actually better run blockers than pass blockers. The exception to that is sophomore LT Gabe Brandner, who is more of a pass blocker than run blocker. He's also perhaps the best NFL prospect on the OL (Skura is a top OC prospect, it's just that NFL teams don't value centers).

None of Duke's RBs are really "speed" backs, so getting outside isn't a strong option for them. But they are all good at running through the line and in traffic. Even Sirk is more of a between the tackles runner, as he doesn't possess great speed. He's very elusive, especially in traffic, and almost never takes a direct hit.

This actually plays pretty well for the Hoos defense, as they are strong up the middle. The Hoos have given up a ton of big plays this year to the perimeter, but they've rarely given up much inside. Shutting down the Duke running game is task #1 in this game. If you force Duke to be one-dimensional, you've basically stopped them.

Not surprisingly in today's college football, the Duke offense is based on the read option. It's a bit like Syracuse's offense was, although the Duke QBs are better. Also, while Syracuse had some speedy WRs and often looked deep for big plays in the passing game, Duke's passing game is based on short, quick passes. They throw a lot of crossing routes and seam routes. They'll also utilize the screen game with Powell, who is 3rd on the team with 31 receptions (though he averages just 6 yards per catch).

It will be hard to generate pressure on Sirk (or Boehme if he plays) because they are elusive. Also, they tend to throw short, quick passes. So, of course, Jon Tenuta will repeatedly send extra pass rushers in an effort to force turnovers. Duke, however, doesn't turn it over much. And they don't give up negative plays either. In short, Tenuta's defensive scheme is exactly wrong for this game. I hope he realizes this and changes things up. I do not expect him to.

Player to Watch

#1 QB Thomas Sirk - If Sirk can't go, Boehme (#12) is your player to watch. The QBs are similar, and the Duke offense doesn't change one bit if Sirk can't go. Both QBs are runners who throw, rather than passers who run.

Though neither are particularly efficient passers, both guys have strong arms and are capable of making the necessary throws. They excel at making throws on the move, although they will both be looking to run once they get out of the pocket.

On the read option, Sirk will turn it upfield as soon as he can. He's not really a big play runner, though he did have a 53 yard run against UNC. He's so elusive, though, that he'll get past the line and into the secondary before you've even finished your read. He'll pick up 6-8 yards easily. Then, on the next play, he'll pull the ball back and throw a quick slant to McAffrey. It's a tough offense to slow down, because of the misdirection.

Duke Defense

This might be the best defense of the Dave Cutcliffe era, as Duke currently sits 35th in the nation in total defense. And that comes after having given up over 700 yards to UNC a couple of weeks ago. They also gave up over 440 yards to a not-very-good Pitt offense. Even with those two games, they've given up just 350 yards per game.

This is a well-balanced defense as well, as they rank 43rd in rushing defense and 42nd in passing defense. They are 63rd in passing efficiency defense. They do not generate very many sacks (98th nationally, and nobody on the team has more than 2.5. But they do generate a lot of TFLs (35th in the nation), led by senior SS Jeremy Cash, who is 2nd nationally, with 17.5 TFLs. They also don't force a ton of turnovers. What they do is pursue to the ball, stay home on misdirection and avoid giving up big plays. Except, against UNC they did none of that.

Duke runs a 4-2-5 base defense with 3 safeties. The 3 safeties are 1-3-4 on the team in tackles. Cash, of course, is the leader of the defense and arguably the best player on the team. The 6'2" 205 lb safety is a potential first round pick (though more likely 2nd round). His fellow safeties, Deondre Singleton and DeVon Edwards, are both likely NFL players, though not high draft picks.

The two CBs are not nearly the playmakers that their secondary-mates are. Junior Breon Borders is a good cover guy with height and a willingness to play physical. He leads the team with 8 passes defended. Both CBs are relatively small and could struggle to cover Canaan Severin and the rest of the Hoos big WRs (such as Keeon Johnson).

Though Cash is the best player, he's actually tied for the team lead in tackles with WLB Dwayne Norman. Norman, also a senior, has had a great year and is 2nd on the team in tackles, TFLs, passed defended and QB hurries (tied for 2nd). He will move around on defense, lining up inside, outside and even on the line at times. He'll rush the passer, he'll drop back in coverage, and he's even quick enough to cover many RBs or TEs in man coverage. That said, he's not going to be able to cover Smoke Mizzell in man coverage. But be sure that Duke has a plan for tracking him on passing downs.

Duke's DL is full of upper-classmen. But, frankly, it is not all that good. For a 4 man DL, they really don't make many plays on their own. They are generally just taking up blockers and letting the guys behind them make plays. That said, junior DT A.J. Wolf is a good run stuffer and is 6th on the team in tackles. Duke will also rotate quite a bit on the DL. Still, none of them have more than 1 sack or 2 TFLs, which is awfully low for a 4-3 defense.

Truth is, some of that is scheme. This defense relies on the DBs and LBs to make the plays. The 3 safeties, in particular, have a ton of responsibilities.

The Hoos have had success in recent weeks running the ball to the perimeter. This isn't a great game plan against the Blue Devils, who are strong on the perimeter. However, runs up the middle could be successful. I could even see some draw plays and delayed handoffs being strong plays this week. Similarly, though Smoke has made plays in the passing game against every defense the Hoos have played, this week doesn't bode well for him. The screen passes won't be very successful, because Duke does not over-pursue. They are not really aggressive, and the veteran unit will read screen and make the play. The flare passes might be there, but there won't be a lot of yards after the catch.

Where the Hoos can be successful in the passing game will be on the outside. If Matt Johns can get single coverage on the perimeter, he should look there because the Hoos' WRs have an advantage. This, of course, will require a strong running game which will keep those safeties closer to the LOS.

Player to Watch

#16 SS Jeremy Cash - Cash is the one guy on this defense that teams need to account for on every play. He's big, he's fast and he can tackle. He's also the one aggressive player on the team, which is why a safety leads the team in sacks and TFLs.

Cash is all over the field. He'll come up and stop the RB in the hole on first down, then he'll blitz on 2nd and he'll drop back in coverage on third. He's capable of being a difference maker in every facet of the Blue Devil's defense.

Special Teams

The loss of Jamison Crowder was a big one for Duke's return game. Their punt return unit dropped from 10th nationally last year to 82nd this year. The rest of their special teams, though, are all solid, including an 18th ranked kick return unit.

They also have one of the top kicking duos in the country in seniors Will Monday (punter) and Ross Martin (placekicker).

The Hoos are at a decided disadvantage on special teams this week.

Conclusion

Neither one of these teams really has much to play for. Duke can improve their bowl bid, but since they don't travel well they are limited in where they'll end up. The Hoos, of course, are playing solely for pride.

But the Hoos are at home, where they've played much better under Mike London. And, though the Blue Devils are a better coached team, this game actually bodes fairly well for the Hoos in terms of scheme.

If it is close late, I fully expect the Hoos to make some key mistake to blow the game. But, I think they'll get a bit of a lead and hold on late for the win.

Prediction: Hoos 30, Blue Devils 27