2009 Football Game Preview: #6 Virginia Tech at Duke

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  • Date: Saturday, October 3rd, 2009
  • Time: noon
  • TV: ESPN360.com (what’s
    this?
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After escaping the most challenging month in Tech football history with a 3-1
record, the Hokies will play their first true road game of the season at Duke.
This is a classic trap game. After going through emotional roller coasters in
their last two games against Nebraska and Miami, Tech now faces a
perennial ACC cellar dweller. How the Hokies respond could tell us a lot about
this team.

Duke is 2-2 on the season. They have losses to Richmond and Kansas, and wins
over Army and North Carolina Central. The 2-2 start is a bit disappointing. The
Blue Devils should be 3-1 and still be in the mix to qualify for a bowl.
However, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now.

The Blue Devils won four games in 2008, and played Virginia Tech tough in
Lane Stadium, losing 14-3. As the team to beat in the ACC, the Hokies will have
a target on their backs.


Hokies vs. Duke

Year

Tech

Duke

2004

41

17

2005

45

0

2006

36

0

2007

43

14

2008

14

3

Average

35.8

6.8

In five games against Virginia Tech, Duke has scored more than three points just
twice. The Hokies have dominated this series, winning by an average of 29 points
per game.

The Duke Offense

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe is known for his offensive ability, and the
Blue Devil passing game has improved a lot since his arrival in Durham. Here’s a
quick look at Duke’s offensive stats.


The Duke Offense

Category

Stat

ACC Rank

National Rank

Rushing

104.25 ypg

11

98

Passing

267.25 ypg

3

25

Total Offense

371.5 ypg

6

58

Scoring

29 ppg

4

52

Pass Efficiency

129.17

6

62

Sacks

1.75 per game

6

59

Average

6

59

The Duke offense is led by senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (6-1, 215, Sr.).
Lewis is a four-year starter at Duke, and probably the most underrated
quarterback in the country. If he put up these numbers for a winning team, he
would be a highly regarded quarterback.


Thad Lewis Career Stats

Year

Comp.

Att.

Pct.

Yards

TD

INT

2006

180

340

52.9%

2,134

11

16

2007

199

360

55.3%

2,430

21

10

2008

224

361

62%

2,171

15

6

2009

72

123

58.5%

783

5

2

Totals

675

1184

57%

7,518

52

34

Those are impressive numbers, and they’ve improved year after year. David
Cutcliffe, with his knowledge of the passing game, has made Lewis a better
player.

The Hokies don’t have much experience playing against Lewis. He missed the
Tech game in 2008 with an injury (maybe Duke wins that game with Lewis; they
lost just 14-3 without him), and he was knocked out of the game early in 2006.
In 2007, he was 13-of-24 for 119 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
He also had a rushing touchdown in that game.

Make no mistake, Lewis is a good quarterback. He’s sharing some time this
year with talented r-freshman Sean Renfree (6-3, 210, r-Fr.). Renfree is the
quarterback of the future, and Cutcliffe has decided to get him some quality
reps this year so that he’s prepared to start in 2010. Renfree has performed
very well so far, going 29-of-43 (67.4%) for 286 yards, with four touchdowns and
one interception.


Renfree was a Parade All-American as a senior in high school, and ranked the
#10 quarterback in the country by Scout.com. He was selected to the prestigious
Elite 11 quarterback camp. He’s the perfect example of David Cutcliffe’s ability
to bring better players to Durham than previous coaching staffs.

Another example is tailback Desmond Scott (5-10, 185, Fr.). Scott’s redshirt
was burned last week, because of injuries at the tailback position and the lack
of production from the running game. He was the #1 running back in the state of
North Carolina coming out of high school, and a national Top 150 recruit. He had
scholarship offers from the likes of Georgia, UNC, Rutgers, West Virginia,
Tennessee and Clemson.

Scott ran for 100 yards on 16 carries in the first game of his career against
North Carolina Central. He is battling a slight hamstring injury right now, but
he should play against Virginia Tech.

Patrick Kurunwane (5-9, 210, r-Fr.) has 22 carries for 121 yards and one
touchdown on the season. He was pressed into action against North Carolina
Central as well, because of injuries, and he ran for 94 yards.

The top two tailbacks are questionable. Re’quan Boyette (5-10, 205, r-Sr.) is
the regular starter, but he is suffering from a leg injury and he is
questionable for this game. Boyette is a solid back, but he’s never been able to
get into a groove at Duke. The offensive line has always been bad, and the Blue
Devils pass the ball a lot since they frequently play from behind.


Re’quan Boyette

Year

Att.

Yards

TYC

TD

2005

60

252

4.2

1

2006

87

388

4.5

2

2007

104

432

4.2

2

Totals

251

1072

4.3

5

Averaging over four yards per carry behind Duke’s offensive line is an
accomplishment. Boyette missed the 2008 season with a knee injury and
redshirted.

The final running back is Jay Hollingsworth (5-10, 195, So.). Hollingworth
started most of last season, but he has been limited with an ankle injury in
2009. He is also a threat catching the football out of the backfield.

Duke’s wide receivers have plenty of opportunities to catch the football.
Johnny Williams (5-10, 185, So.) is the top receiver on the team, with 20
catches for 236 yards (11.8 ypc) and a touchdown on the season. Williams is
blessed with very high top-end speed. The Tech defensive backs need to keep
Williams in front of them, because he’s capable of hitting big plays.

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Austin Kelly (6-2, 200, Jr.) is an experienced receiver who had made nine
career starts heading into this season. He is more of a possession receiver.
Kelly’s first career catch came against Virginia Tech in 2007. He has 19 catches
for 256 yards (13.5 ypc) and one touchdown this year.

Donovan Varner (5-9, 170, So.) caught 21 passes last season as a true
freshman, and he’ll easily exceed that number in 2009. So far he has 16 catches
for 186 yards (11.6 ypc) and a team-high four touchdown receptions. Conner
Vernon (6-0, 185, Fr.) has 12 receptions for 143 yards (11.9 ypc) and one
touchdown. Varner and Vernon are both from Gulliver Prep in Miami, so they are
pretty advanced in the passing game for young receivers.

The Duke offensive line has been poor in recent years, and they lost three
starters off last year’s team. They appear to be improved in pass blocking, but
run blocking is still an issue.


The Duke Offensive Line

Pos.

Name

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.

Starts

LT

Kyle Hill

6-6

285

r-So.

16

LG

Brandon Harper

6-3

305

r-Jr.

4

C

Bryan Morgan

6-3

255

Jr.

17

RG

Brian Moore

6-3

275

r-Fr.

4

RT

Jarrod Holt

6-6

310

Sr.

4

This is an inexperienced and small Duke offensive line. No player has more than
one full year of starting experience. The best player is probably left tackle
Kyle Hill, who started every game at left guard as a r-freshman in 2008.

The interior line for Duke is very small. Bryan Morgan is an undersized
center, and right guard Brian Moore is also small, and he’s only a r-fresman.
The Tech defensive tackles should have a very good game on Saturday.

The Duke Defense

Duke’s defense is beatable on the ground or through the air. They will likely
load the box to try and stop the Tech running game and force Tyrod Taylor and
the wide receivers to beat them. Here are Duke’s defensive statistics through
four games.


The Duke Defense

Category

Stat

ACC Rank

Nat. Rank

Rushing

153.25 ypg

8

80

Passing

181.25 ypg

8

39

Total

334.5 ypg

8

52

Scoring

25.25 ppg

9

74

Pass. Eff.

119.51

7

57

TFL

4.5 per game

9

96

Sacks

0.75 per game

11

110

Average

8.57

72.57

The Blue Devils haven’t played good competition, with the exception of Kansas.
They lost to 1-AA Richmond, beat Army despite being outgained 385-236, got blown
out at Kansas and then knocked off North Carolina Central. The only good
offensive team (by 1-A standards) that they have faced was Kansas, and the
Jayhawks beat them 44-16.

For the last two weeks, the Blue Devils have missed the services of talented
defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase (6-5, 305, r-Sr.). Oghobaase is the most highly
recruited football player at Duke in recent memory. The Hokies have faced some
excellent defensive tackles this season, and Oghobaase is very good in his own
right. He is arguably the best defensive tackle in the ACC, and he could be
drafted as early as the second round next April.

Oghobaase has missed the last two games with a leg injury, and it’s not
certain that he’ll play against the Hokies. If he does, he might not be 100%.
His loss would seriously weaken the Duke defensive line. He is tied for the team
lead in tackles for loss with 2.5, despite only playing in the first two games
of the season.

The biggest playmaker at defensive end is Ayanga Okpokowuruk (6-3, 250,
r-Sr.). He has 2.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks in four games this year. He
has been in and out of the starting lineup since he was a freshman. The other
defensive end is Patrick Egboh (6-5, 245, r-Jr.). Egboh has one of Duke’s three
sacks on the season.

Duke is not good at getting to the quarterback. They have just three sacks in
four games, despite their level of competition. That ranks 110th nationally, and
their 18 tackles for loss ranks 96th nationally. This isn’t a defense that will
play is the offensive backfield very often.

Middle linebacker Vincent Rey (6-0, 245, Sr.) is the most productive player
on the defensive side of the ball. He leads the team with 37 tackles, and he has
also posted two tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery. Rey
has 269 career tackles. In 2008, he had an All-ACC type year by posting 109
tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

With Rey and Oghobaase manning the inside of the Duke defense, the Blue
Devils have some major toughness. Fortunately for opposing teams, the rest of
the front seven isn’t nearly as talented.

The other starting linebackers are strongside backer Abraham Kromah (6-1,
225, r-Jr.) and weakside backer Damian Thornton (6-2, 240, Jr.). Both of these
players are new starters, and they need to play at a higher level for the Blue
Devils to be successful defensively.

Duke has just two interceptions through the first four games of the season,
and they both came from left cornerback Leon Wright (5-9, 175, Sr.). He has
seven career interceptions, and none were bigger than the two picks he had
against Army in the second game of the season. Wright returned two interceptions
for touchdowns during that game, as Duke escaped with a 35-19 win despite being
outgained 385-236.

Wright is the biggest playmaker in the secondary for Duke, though there are
other experienced players. Left safety Catron Gainey (6-2, 205, Sr.) is a
quality player who had an interception and a sack against Virginia Tech last
season. Right cornerback Lee Butler (5-10, 185, So.) got a lot of action last
year as a backup cornerback and punt returner.

The starting right safety is Matt Daniels (6-1, 200, So.). He got plenty of
playing time as a true freshman in 2008, and he recorded his first career
interception against Virginia Tech.

Since joining the ACC, the Hokies have consistently put up yards on Duke.


Virginia Tech Offensive Yards vs. Duke

Year

Rush

Pass

Total

2004

250

172

422

2005

180

182

362

2006

102

316

418

2007

99

346

445

2008

187

147

334

Average

163.6

232.6

396.2

Historically, Virginia Tech has never had much trouble with the Duke defense,
though the Hokies have lacked the balanced performances that you’d like to see
from the offense. More on that later.

Special Teams

The Blue Devils will have to play very well on special teams to have a chance
to beat Virginia Tech. So far this season, their special teams haven’t been
good, with the exception of the kickoff team.


Duke Special Teams

Category

Stat

Nat. Rank

Net Punt

30.23 ypp

111

Kick Return

21.85 ypr

57

Punt Return

10.22 ypr

55

Kick Return Def.

17.7 ypr

16

Punt Return Def.

10.73 ypr

79

Average

63.6

Kevin Jones (6-2, 200, r-Jr.) handles the punting for Duke. He is averaging 40.1
yards per punt on the year, a solid number, but he has had one punt blocked. We
saw Virginia Tech block a punt last week, and Duke’s longsnapper, Jackson
Anderson (6-4, 260, r-Fr.), is a young freshman who will face the toughest
challenge of his short college career on Saturday.

Duke is better off going for it on fourth down than kicking field goals. Duke
kickers Nick Maggio (6-4, 200, Jr.) and Will Snyderwine (5-11, 185, Jr.) have
combined to go 1-of-4 on their field goal attempts this season. Every miss has
been from inside 40 yards. If this somehow turns into a battle of field goals,
Virginia Tech will have a distinct advantage.

Seven different players have returned kickoffs for Duke this year. Johnny
Williams has been a fixture there because of his speed, and he is averaging 23.4
yards per return. We could see Desmond Scott, Conner Vernon or Leon Wright
returning kicks as well. Kick returns haven’t been Duke’s strength thus far, so
the Hokies shouldn’t have any trouble limiting the Blue Devils.

Johnny Williams also handles the punt returns for Duke, and he’s averaging 13
yards per return. He is the most explosive player on the Blue Devil team, so
David Cutcliffe finds ways to get the ball in his hands as often as possible.

Conclusion

Virginia Tech will win this football game. The Blue Devils are too banged up
at tailback, and with defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase possibly out as well, I
don’t see how the Duke defense can hold up against the Tech offense all day
long. Virginia Tech has more talent and depth at just about every position on
the field, and that will show up in the final score.

That said, there are a few things I want to see in this football game. First
of all, I want to see Tech bring their A-game. It’s natural to have some
drop-offs in performance after playing Nebraska and Miami in back-to-back weeks,
but championship teams come to play just about every week. I want Tech to come
out, punch Duke in the mouth, and get the backups playing time in the fourth
quarter.

Secondly, I want to see the Tech offense continue to improve against the pass
rush. Last week was the first time the Hokies didn’t surrender a sack in 41
games, all the way back to the Duke game in 2006. The Blue Devils are 110th
nationally in sacks this year, and average just 0.75 sacks per game. I don’t
want to see them getting a lot of pressure on Tyrod Taylor. This is a front
seven that the Hokies should be able to handle with relative ease. If Duke gets
pressure on Taylor, then we’ll know that Tech’s woes against the pass rush
aren’t over.

Finally, I want to see balance out of Virginia Tech’s offense. In the past,
the Hokies have been able to run the ball on Duke in some years (2004, 2005,
2008) and throw the ball in other years (2005, 2006, 2007). Only in 2005 was
Tech able to put together a balanced offensive performance. If they can show
good balance on offense this year, then I’ll feel a lot better about the rest of
the season.

I have a lot of respect for the job David Cutcliffe has done at Duke this
far. I like a lot of their players, such as Thad Lewis, Johnny Williams and
Vince Oghobaase. But at this point, the only way they can beat the Hokies is if
the Hokies beat themselves.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, Duke 7

Will Stewart’s Take: If not for Miami’s tough stretch of four ranked
teams to start the season, everyone would have been talking about Virginia
Tech’s September slate, which was as tough as any team in the nation. Four games
into the season, the Hokies boast the kind of statistic few teams in college
football, if any, can match: Tech’s four opponents are now a combined 12-3, with
all three losses coming against the Hokies.

In other words, Tech’s opponents have been perfect outside of playing against
the Hokies, and Alabama is perfect, including the Hokies.

But that was September. Tomorrow is October.

September was a roller coaster ride, and I came away with one overriding
impression, now that it’s over: the 2009 Hokies have carried over the mental
toughness and team chemistry displayed by the 2008 Hokies.

That mental toughness was tested throughout September, and the team proved
itself resilient. They were ready to play against Alabama, they gave it
everything they had for four quarters, and they didn’t let the loss derail them.
They throttled a Marshall team that is now 3-1, including a win at Memphis. They
rebounded from a game-long struggle to snatch a hard-fought win from Nebraska.
And lastly, they got their backs up when it mattered most and unloaded on
Miami.

Some things come and go week to week, but the mental toughness and
togetherness should be consistent from game to game.

That resolve will now be tested in a different way. Simply put: don’t let up.
We knew that a loss to Alabama wouldn’t necessarily derail Tech’s shot at a
national championship, but few imagined that Tech would enter September ranked
#7, lose to Alabama, and exit September ranked higher, at #6. That’s a
pretty sweet setup.

Within the confines of the ACC race, the Hokies have a powerful one-game,
head-to-head lead over Miami. VT has cleared the path to both of the team’s
primary goals, which are a national championship game appearance and an ACC
championship. Not only are both goals still attainable, but in the case of the
ACC championship the skids have been greased heavily.

Being highly ranked early in the season isn’t new ground for the Hokies.
Here’s a table showing Tech’s ranking going into the fifth game of the season
over the last eleven seasons.


Virginia Tech’s Ranking
After Four Games

Season

Rank

1999

#5

2000

#3

2001

#6

2002

#5

2003

#4

2004

NR

2005

#3

2006

#10

2007

#17

2008

NR

2009

#6

It has been a while (2005) since the Hokies have been ranked this high after
four games, and Tech hasn’t camped in the top five in early October much since
the 2003 collapse.

You can argue talent levels all you want, but this year’s team appears to be
mentally tougher and more cohesive than most of the Tech teams on that list.
They now have a chance to prove it by finishing out strong over the remainder of
the regular season. That’s nine more games to go (assuming an ACC Championship
Game appearance), and plenty of opportunities to fall down along the way.

Do the Hokies need to work on certain parts of their game in the coming two
months? Sure. With special teams and the rushing game well established, Tech’s
needs to continue polishing those, while improving their passing game and
building upon the defense’s breakout Miami performance.

But mostly, they need to keep their focus and bring their best effort to
every game left on the schedule. That’s a tall order for a bunch of college
kids, who can go astray mentally all too easily. It’s easy for us to see that
the team has done too much work in the past month, and positioned themselves too
well, to let it slip away with a lackluster effort somewhere along the way. It’s
not always easy for the players to keep focus.

It’s going to be interesting to see what the Hokies bring to the table over
their next four games. November has a way of bringing focus on its own, but the
middle (October) stretch of the season can be dicey mentally. The Hokies are a
tight-knit bunch, from what we can tell, and I think they’re mentally able to
close strong. It starts Saturday, one game at a time.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Duke 6

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