Duke Game Preview: Hokies Face Blue Devils In Final ACC Road Game

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David Cutcliffe
David Cutcliffe has done a great job at Duke.

Virginia Tech is 1-2 against the Duke Blue Devils over the past three seasons.  The Hokies lost both games in Lane Stadium to unranked Duke teams, but managed to knock off the #19 Blue Devils 17-16 in Durham in 2014.  Go figure.

David Cutcliffe has done a masterful job resurrecting the Duke program. They’ve made a bowl game four years in a row, which is a huge deal, but they are having a down year in 2016 that is partly due to an injury to starting quarterback Thomas Sirk.  Cutcliffe and his coaching staff have raised the recruiting profile of Duke, and the program now features much better athletes than it did in the pre-Cutcliffe era.

Duke is on the cusp of seeing its bowl streak come to an end.  Meanwhile, the Hokies will be facing their final ACC road test of the season.  If they make it through this game, all that stands between Tech and the ACC Championship Game are two home contests against Georgia Tech and UVA.  VT is beating FBS opponents by an average of 35 points per game in Lane Stadium this year, so you’ve got to feel good about Tech’s chances of winning the Coastal if they knock off the Blue Devils on Saturday.

Duke is 3-5 overall and 0-4 in the ACC for a reason.  They simply aren’t quite as good as they’ve been the last few years.  It’s tough to recruit talent consistently there, and the losses of Jamison Crowder and Laken Tomlinson to the NFL have severely hurt the talent level of the Duke offense.  Throw in the loss of  Sirk to a season-ending Achilles injury, and now an injury to starting tailback Jela Duncan, and the Blue Devils just don’t have enough playmakers on the field.

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Here’s a closer look at what the Hokies will be facing on Saturday.

Injuries Hurting Duke’s Offense

The Duke Blue Devils have had an unfortunate rash of injuries, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.  None was more important than the preseason injury to starting quarterback Thomas Sirk, an experienced senior who had a big game against the Hokies last season (19-39, 270 yards, 4 TDs).  Duke has lost some close, low scoring games, and they were also defeated by Virginia when their replacement quarterback (more on him later) committed six turnovers.

Things got worse for the Blue Devils this past Saturday.  They finally moved the ball and scored some points in a 38-35 loss to Georgia Tech, but they lost leading rusher tailback Jela Duncan (450 yards, 5.1 ypc) for the season with a torn ACL.  Duncan is the sixth leading rusher in Duke history, and no other Blue Devil running back has been nearly as effective this season.

The loss of Sirk has limited the Duke offense all season.  The loss of Duncan will hurt it going forward.  The Blue Devils average just 3.9 yards per carry as a team, and losing their top rusher will hurt that average even more.

Both Sirk and Duncan were team captains.  They are two of three team captains to be lost for the season, joining safety DeVon Edwards.  Obviously it has been  tough year on the injury front for the Blue Devils.

The Up and Down Season of Daniel Jones

Daniel Jones (6-5, 210, r-Fr.) is a good quarterback.  However, he’s a very young quarterback who is having his ups and downs as a first-year starter.  He’s a former walk-on who slipped through the cracks as a high school recruit because he didn’t hit a growth spurt until his senior year of high school, and by that point most schools already have commitments from a quarterback.  Overall, he’s done a good job for such a young player from an unknown background.

However, he’s had his rough patches.  Here are his game-by-game stats…

NC Central (49-6 W): 10-of-15, 189 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs
Wake Forest (24-14 L): 31-of-48, 332 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
Northwestern (24-13 L): 27-of-48, 279 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
Notre Dame (38-35 W): 24-of-32, 290 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT
Virginia (34-20 L): 33-of-54, 324 yards, 1 TD, 5 INTs
Army (13-6 W): 7-of-15, 41 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs
Louisville (24-14 L): 14-of-21, 129 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs
Georgia Tech (38-35 L): 22-of-36, 305 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT

Duke’s inability to run the football means the coaching staff was putting too much on Jones’ shoulders early in the season.  He didn’t have any business throwing the football 48+ times in losses to Wake Forest, Northwestern and UVA. Here’s how the Duke running game fared in each of those games…

Wake: 37 yards, 1.2 ypc
Northwestern: 117 yards, 3.4 ypc
UVA: 106 yards, 3.4 ypc

Duke couldn’t average more than 3.4 yards per carry in any of those games, and it forced Jones to make more plays than he was capable of making at that point in his career.  After the loss to UVA, in which he threw five interceptions and had a fumble, the Duke coaching staff dialed back the passing game to more manageable numbers, and he’s been a more effective quarterback.  Over his last three games, Jones has only thrown one interception.

However, with their only effective running back out for the season, will Duke elect to transfer the weight of the offense back on Jones’ shoulders?  He has the talent, but at this stage he still doesn’t have the experience.  That would be a lot to ask, especially against Bud Foster’s wide array of coverages.  This is a matchup that goes in Virginia Tech’s favor.

Duke Offensive Line Takes a Step Back

Here’s a look at Duke’s starting offensive line, from left to right…

LT Gabe Brandner (6-6, 285, r-Jr.): 26 games, 21 starts
LG Zach Harmon (6-3, 285, r-So.): 12 games, 6 starts
C Austin Davis (6-4, 290, r-Jr.): 21 games, 8 starts
RG Tanner Stone (6-6, 300, r-Sr.): 27 games, 21 starts
Casey Blaser (6-5, 290, r-Sr.): 36 games, 34 starts

With the exception of left guard and center, there is plenty of experience on the Duke offensive line.  However, they do lack size.  Only one starter is north of 290.  They also aren’t as talented as they’ve been in the past.  Laken Tomlinson played offensive guard for Duke, and he was a first round pick of the Detroit Lions back in 2015.  The Blue Devils haven’t been as physical since his departure.

2012: 3.7 ypc, 6-7 record
2013: 4.6 ypc, 10-4 record
2014: 4.8 ypc, 9-4 record
2015: 4.8 ypc, 8-5 record
2016: 3.9 ypc, 3-5 record

Duke was winning eight or more games every time they averaged 4.6 yards per carry or more. However, when they’ve struggled to run the football, they’ve struggled to win games.  They did sneak into a bowl game in 2012 without a running game, but that four -year bowl streak is about to come to an end if the Blue Devils can’t win three of their final four games against Virginia Tech, UNC, Pitt and Miami.  That’s a tall task.

Daniel Jones probably can’t beat Virginia Tech on his own.  The Blue Devils are going to have to be balanced offensively, which means that offensive line is going to have to play its best game of the season this Saturday.

Duke Defense: Young In the Front Seven

Despite their overall youth in the front seven, the Duke defense has been able to keep the team in every game they’ve played this season.  The Blue Devils haven’t lost a game by more than 14 points, and they were in each and every game in the fourth quarter.  Their worst defensive performance came last week in a 38-35 loss to Justin Thomas and Georgia Tech.

Duke’s defense features a lot of young players up front.  Here’s a look at their starting defensive line and linebackers…

DE Dominic McDonald (6-2, 240, r-Jr.)
DT AJ Wolf (6-4, 280, r-Sr.)
DT Mike Ramsay (6-2, 295, r-Jr.)
DE Marquies Price (6-6, 245, So.)
LB Ben Humphreys (6-2, 215, So.)
LB Joe Giles-Harris (6-2, 220, r-Fr.)

Half of those starters are sophomores and freshmen, while five of the six backups are sophomores or freshmen.  That’s a young group.  Nevertheless, they’ve acquitted themselves pretty well this year despite their youth and lack of size.

The Blue Devils are 20th nationally in tackles for loss and 19th in sacks.  They are capable of making plays in the backfield, creating havoc for the offense, and putting opposing offenses in long-yardage situations.  One player in particular to watch is safety Corbin McCarthy (5-10, 200, r-Sr.).  He leads the team with 10.5 TFL, and he’s also added 3.5 sacks.  He does his best work around the line of scrimmage, and he should be a major factor in the running game.  The Hokies have to get him blocked.

However, Duke has struggled quite a bit with big plays this seasons.

20+ yard plays: #112
30+ yard plays: #123
40+ yard plays: #124
50+ yard plays: #122

Overall, the Duke defense ranks #118 nationally in the S&P+ explosive plays metric.  The Blue Devils will play well most of the time (#42 in efficiency), but big plays have absolutely killed them.  Meanwhile, the Virginia Tech offense has moved up to #24 nationally in big plays per the S&P+, while sitting at #41 overall.  I don’t think we can expect sustained success from the Tech offense on Saturday, but the numbers tell us that the big plays will be there against this Duke defense.

Special Teams: Advantage Hokies

James Shibest came to Blacksburg regarded as one of the best special teams coaches in the country, and we’ve seen the Hokies win the field position battle on numerous occasions this season.  Tech has a big advantage over the Blue Devils in special teams efficiency.  Here are Duke’s S&P+ numbers…

Overall: #108
FG Value: #126
Punt Success Rate: #72
Kickoff Success Rate: #64
Punt Return Success Rate: #21
Kick Return Success Rate: #32

Compare that to Tech’s rankings…

Overall: #19
FG Value: #53
Punt Success Rate: #21
Kickoff Success Rate: #1
Punt Return Success Rate: #86
Kick Return Success Rate: #71

Joey Slye doesn’t give opponents a chance to return kicks, and when he has the coverage has been very good.  Likewise, Mitchell Ludwig has been excellent at limiting the opponent’s punt return opportunities.  As a result, the Hokies have held a major field position advantage in their wins this season.  We saw that first hand in the most recent victories over Miami and Pitt.

Duke on the other hand has not played well on special teams this season.  They have a kickoff return for a touchdown, but true freshman AJ Reed is just 3-of-7 on his field goal attempts, with no makes beyond 38 yards.  They’ve also used three different players to kick off, and only four of their 35 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks.  Compare that to Joey Slye, who has 46 touchbacks in 58 attempts.

Special teams can be a bit of a crap shoot, but the numbers indicate that the Hokies will have a major advantage on Saturday.

Final Thoughts

I’m a little bit concerned that Tech’s defense seems to be running out of gas, but hopefully the two extra days of rest were beneficial to defensive ends Ken Ekanem and Vinny Mihota.  Either way, Duke doesn’t pose anywhere near the offensive threat of Pitt because their offensive line is nowhere near as big or as physical, and because they don’t have the talent at running back.  I just can’t see this Duke team scoring enough points to hang with the Hokies.

Virginia Tech is going to beat Duke on Saturday, and I’ve shortchanged the Hokies in points in most of their wins over Power 5 teams…

Boston College: 24 predicted points, 49 actual points
ECU: 31 predicted points, 54 actual points
UNC: 34 predicted points, 34 actual points
Miami: 24 predicted points, 37 actual points
Pitt: 31 predicted points, 39 actual points

I haven’t given Tech enough credit in any of their wins, with the exception of the UNC game, and you know darn well that they would have scored more than 34 points had it not been raining.  So as complimentary as I’ve been of the Hokie offense this year, I actually haven’t expressed as much confidence in them as they’ve deserved in my game previews (with the exception of the Syracuse game…doh!).

I was thinking about picking this one by the score of 31-17, or something like that.  But because I’ve shortchanged the Tech offense in the past, I’m going to give them another touchdown this week.  Duke seems like they have a good enough defense to hold Tech under 38 points, but I’m anticipating a turnover or two from Jones, and the Hokies will win the field position battle because of superior special teams.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, Duke 17

Will Stewart’s Take: This is pretty simple. The Hokies need to show up ready to play, and give Duke their best shot. If they don’t, this one will be too close for comfort and might even turn into a surprising, crushing loss. The Hokie players and coaches have said all the right things about being ready to play, and Hokie fans can take comfort in the fact that in Durham on Saturday, the weather will be good (lows 60s and sunny), Hokies will be plentiful in the stands, and Virginia Tech generally plays well in Durham (5-0 since ACC expansion in 2004).

As Chris detailed, the Hokies should hold a special teams advantage. Tech also hasn’t turned the ball over in the last two games, and as long as they continue that, these two factors will enable them to keep the pressure on Duke by spending a lot of time on Duke’s side of the field. The Hokies should hit some big plays, and if those big plays don’t make it into the end zone, Tech will need to finish in the red zone better than they did against Pittsburgh.

There’s not really a lot I can add to this one. Like I said, it’s pretty simple. Duke is likely to hang tough, since no one has beaten them by more than 14 points this season, but if the Hokies show up and play their game, and turnovers and special teams don’t cause things to “get out of whack,” this should be a hard-fought but comfortable win for Tech.

Ordinarily, I would pick this one by a large margin, but the Hokies were involved in an intense battle with Pittsburgh last Thursday. They’re banged up, and a bit of an emotional letdown is normal in these situations. We’ll see how they respond, but I expect a bit of back and forth with Virginia Tech pulling away in the end.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, Duke 17

Ricky LaBlue’s take: I don’t like picking against David Cutcliffe teams.

Cutcliffe is one of the better coaches in the ACC for a reason. His teams always play hard and usually give better teams a run for their money. Could you imagine Cutcliffe at a better football program, like Pittsburgh or North Carolina? Yikes.

Unfortunately for Cutcliffe, his guys have been put through the ringer this season. There are so many injuries to the offense and the replacements are still young players finding their way. Losing Thomas Sirk all but doomed this team from the start, but they’ve battled well all season.

Despite their pluckiness, Duke won’t be able to hang around too long vs. Virginia Tech. I don’t see the Hokies’ defense giving up 36 points again, especially to this offense. Duke’s defense isn’t particularly impressive and I’m expecting the Hokies to have better success running the football. It won’t be an absolute blowout, but Virginia Tech should win this comfortably.

Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, Duke 16

Who Will Win the Virginia Tech-Duke Game?
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