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Duke comes to Lane Stadium sporting a 5-2 record and looking to punch their ticket to a second consecutive bowl game. The Hokies will be trying to win their seventh straight game heading into two big matchups with Boston College and Miami.
The David Cutcliffe Effect
David Cutcliffe inherited a mess of a program at Duke. He’s slowly built the Blue Devils into a respectable football team despite years and years of losing. Here’s how Duke football fared since the 2004 ACC expansion without Cutcliffe:
Awful, isn’t it? Duke averaged one win per year in those four seasons. Cutcliffe won that many games in his first season.
As time has gone by, Cutcliffe has been able to improve Duke’s talent level through recruiting, and he’s molded a decent football team. The Blue Devils will likely go bowling for the second year in a row, and that hasn’t happened in Durham since … well, it’s never happened.
Cutcliffe’s Duke teams have given the Hokies trouble. Here’s a brief recap of each meeting:
2008: Virginia Tech 14, Duke 3. The Hokies won this game in part because Duke QB Zack Asack went 2-of-9 for 15 yards with four interceptions.
2009: Virginia Tech 34, Duke 26. Thad Lewis lit the Hokies up for 359 yards through the air, and the Blue Devils managed to limit Ryan Williams to 83 yards on 24 carries.
2010: Virginia Tech 44, Duke 7. This is the only Beamer vs. Cutcliffe game in which the Hokies haven’t had any trouble.
2011: Virginia Tech 14, Duke 10. That 2011 team that featured Logan Thomas, David Wilson, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale only managed to score 14 points against Duke.
2012: Virginia Tech 41, Duke 20. The Blue Devils jumped out to a 20-0 lead before the Hokies stormed back.
Don’t just assume the Hokies will roll Duke because they are Duke. In five Beamer vs. Cutcliffe games, we’ve been somewhat nervous in four of them.
Boone, Crowder and the Duke passing game
Duke has used two quarterbacks this year because of an early-season injury to Anthony Boone.
Anthony Boone (6-2, 230, r-Jr.): 79-of-113 (69.9%) for 815 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs
Brandon Connette (6-2, 225, r-Jr.): 76-of-118 (64.4%) for 1069 yards, 12 TDs, 6 INTs
Since Boone’s return from an early-season broken collarbone, Brandon Connette has been relegated to rushing specialist. He comes into the game on short yardage situations to run the read option, as he’s a better running threat than Boone. The Tech defense will have to beware, as Duke will also go play-action with Connette on those plays. UVA found out the hard way in last week’s game.
I got a chance to watch the Duke-UVA game, and I don’t think Duke is as good at quarterback as they’ve been in the past. Anthony Boone is a solid player, but he’s not as good as Thad Lewis or Sean Renfree. In fact, he’s not as good as most of the quarterbacks that the Hokies have faced this season.
Boone does have an outstanding wide receiver, however. Jamison Crowder (5-9, 175, Jr.) isn’t a big player, but he’s a very productive college receiver. He has 56 catches for 731 yards and three touchdowns through the first seven games of the season. No other Duke player has more than 25 receptions, so Crowder is very important to the offense.
The Blue Devils like to use him on screens, but they also like to throw him the deep ball. In fact, he beat the Hokies for a 62 yard touchdown last season, and he had a huge game in Lane Stadium with eight catches for 127 yards and a touchdown. He is easily the most important player on Duke’s offense.
After Crowder, the Blue Devils don’t have a lot of talent at receiver. Their players are simply products of the system.
WR Brandon Braxton (6-1, 210, Sr.): 25 catches, 241 yards, 9.6 ypc, 2 TDs
TE Braxton Deaver (6-5, 240, r-Jr.): 20 catches, 296 yards, 14.8 ypc, 4 TDs
WR Max McCaffrey (6-2, 190, So.): 18 catches, 187 yards, 10.4 ypc, 3 TDs
WR Issac Blakeny (6-6, 235, r-Jr.): 12 catches for 158 yards, 13.2 ypc, 4 TDs
McCaffrey is the son of three time Super Bowl Champion Ed McCaffrey, who played for the 49ers, Giants and Broncos from 1991 through 2003. Deaver is a very productive tight end who torched the UVA defense last week.
Balance makes the Duke offense dangerous
David Cutcliffe has a well-deserved reputation for developing quarterbacks and running a very good passing offense. By my count, he has four quarterbacks currently in the NFL. Both Mannings are Super Bowl champions, Thad Lewis has started the last two games for the Bills, and Sean Renfree is a backup in Atlanta.
However, what makes Duke’s offense so dangerous this year is their running game. The Blue Devils are averaging 182.7 yards per game on the ground, and their balanced approaching is helping their passing game as well.
Duke uses four different running backs.
Juwan Thompson (5-11, 225, Sr.): 38 carries, 167 yards, 4.4 ypc, 1 TD
Jela Duncan (5-10, 210, So.): 64 carries, 334 yards, 5.2 ypc, 3 TD
Josh Snead (5-9, 190, r-Sr.): 53 carries, 333 yards, 6.3 ypc, 0 TD
Shaquille Powell (5-10, 205, So.): 20 carries, 121 yards, 6.1 ypc, 1 TD
Those guys have combined for 175 carries for 995 yards. That’s 5.69 yards per carry, which is impressive. Throw in running quarterback Brandon Connette (69 carries, 233 yards), and the Blue Devils are most definitely a threat on the ground.
That’s made possible by a much-improved offensive line. Duke’s offensive line used to be 1-AA quality, but it’s one of the many things that David Cutcliffe has rebuilt since his arrival in Durham.
LT Takoby Cofield (6-4, 305, r-Jr.): 23 career starts, 1750 career snaps
LG Dave Harding (6-4, 285, r-Sr.): 34 career starts, 2697 career snaps
C Matt Skura (6-4, 290, r-So.): 7 career starts, 613 career snaps
RG Laken Tomlinson (6-3, 320, r-Jr.): 32 career starts, 2450 career snaps
RT Perry Simmons (6-5, 300, r-Sr.): 44 career starts, 3319 career snaps
Those guys have combined to start 140 games and play 10,829 career snaps. That’s a lot of experience. They spearhead the effective Duke running game, and they’ve only allowed nine sacks in seven games. This is by far the best Duke offensive line in a long, long time.
Can the Hokies run the football?
Everyone is hopeful that Virginia Tech can do better on the ground this week than they’ve been doing in recent games. J.C. Coleman had a huge game against Duke last season, and a banged up VT offensive line should be healthier after the bye week.
Are those realistic expectations? Here’s what Duke has allowed on the ground so far this year:
NC Central: 29 carries, 81 yards, 2.9 ypc
Memphis: 33 carries, 89 yards, 2.7 ypc
Georgia Tech: 60 carries, 344 yards, 5.7 ypc
Pitt: 46 carries, 174 yards, 3.8 ypc
Troy: 41 carries, 150 yards, 3.7 ypc
Navy: 50 carries, 230 yards, 4.6 ypc
UVA: 39 carries, 100 yards, 2.6 ypc
Overall, Duke is #70 in the country in rushing defense, allowing 166.9 yards per game. However, they’ve played a couple of triple option teams in Georgia Tech and Navy, and those teams will obviously put up a high number of running yards. Navy’s 230 rushing yards were 230 empty rushing yards, as the Midshipmen only scored seven points in that game.
The Blue Devils don’t have the most talented defense in the world, but they have smart players, and they are experienced up front.
DE Kenny Anunike (6-5, 260, r-Sr.): 22 career starts, 1438 career snaps
DT Sydney Sarmiento (6-4, 300, r-Sr.): 43 career starts, 2089 career snaps
NG Jamal Bruce (6-1, 285, r-Jr.): 18 career starts, 647 career snaps
DE Justin Foxx (6-3, 255, r-Jr.): 28 career starts, 1434 career snaps
MLB Kelby Brown (6-2, 230, r-Jr.): 23 career starts, 1354 career snaps
WLB David Helton (6-4, 230, r-Jr.): 14 career starts, 1187 career snaps
Overall, those starters up front have accounted for 148 career starts and 8149 career snaps. That’s a ton of experience, and it doesn’t even include three backup defensive ends with starting experience:
DE Dezmond Johnson (6-4, 260, r-Jr.): 6 career starts, 943 career snaps
DE Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo (6-4, 240, r-Jr.): 9 career starts, 778 career snaps
DE Jonathan Woodruff (6-3, 220, Jr.): 2 career starts, 630 career snaps
Except for a backup defensive tackle or two, all of Duke’s defensive linemen and linebackers have an extensive amount of experience. The most talented player up front is Kenny Anunike, who has 10 tackles for loss and four sacks through the first seven games of the season.
Many college defenses have gone the Virginia Tech route and now run a 4-2-5 defense with a hybrid outside linebacker/safety. Duke is no different. In fact, this hybrid player leads them in tackles. Jeremy Cash (6-2, 210, r-So.) has 66 tackles, 7.5 TFL and two interceptions on the season. He’s also broken up three other passes and forced two fumbles. He’s on his way to having some type of All-ACC season, and he’s one of the better players in the league that you’ve never heard of.
Why is Cash so good? He originally signed with Ohio State over offers from Arizona State, FSU, Louisville, LSU, Miami, Nebraska, UNC, South Carolina, Stanford and Wisconsin. He played in five games as a true freshman for Ohio State in 2011, and then transferred to Duke. Cash leads the ACC in overall tackles, and he’s second in tackles per game (9.4).
That group doesn’t blow you away with athleticism, but they have a good mixture of talent and experience. The defensive line has tons of experience, Kenny Anunike is playing at a high level, and Jeremy Cash is a guy who could play for just about any program in the country. This is a front seven that can most definitely stop Virginia Tech’s running game, if the Hokies don’t improve upon their recent performances.
Can the Hokies run the football against Duke? To be determined.
Can the Hokies throw the football?
Although there is experience at cornerback, Duke’s defense is much less imposing on the back end.
CB Ross Cockrell (6-0, 180, r-Sr.): 43 career starts, 3086 career snaps
CB Garett Patterson (6-1, 190, r-Sr.): 7 career starts, 1053 career snaps
S Deondre Singleton (5-11, 175, Fr.): 2 career starts, 263 career snaps
S Corbin McCarthy (5-10, 200, r-Fr.): 4 career starts, 327 career snaps
Ross Cockrell is a good player who some project to go as high as the fourth round in the 2014 NFL Draft. As a comparison, quarterback Sean Renfree went in the seventh round earlier this year, and he was the first Duke player selected since 2004. Not bad for a guy (Cockrell) whose only other offers were from small-time football programs like Liberty and UVA.
The rest of those guys are weaknesses, however. Garett Patterson is a r-senior, but he’s exploitable. Deondre Singleton is a true freshman safety, and Corbin McCarthy is a r-freshman safety who only had offers from Duke, UC-Davis and Cal Poly. He’s obviously a smart guy, but he and Singleton are both exploitable.
The Blue Devils are only #88 nationally in pass efficiency defense, and they haven’t exactly faced murderer’s row in terms of passing offenses.
Memphis: #94 passing offense, #105 passing efficiency
Georgia Tech: #118 passing offense, #78 passing efficiency
Pitt: #69 passing offense, #36 passing efficiency
Troy: #15 passing offense, #13 passing efficiency
Navy: #120 passing offense, #75 passing efficiency
UVA: #95 passing offense, #116 passing efficiency
Troy can throw the ball around, but they are still a Sun Belt team. That’s simply not an impressive schedule from a passing standpoint, but the Blue Devils have still struggled to stop teams from throwing the football.
Can the Hokies throw the football against Duke? Absolutely.
Duke is dangerous on special teams. Jamison Crowder is averaging 17.5 yards per punt return, and he’s returned two for touchdowns. He is the most important player on Duke’s team, plain and simple. If the Blue Devils want to beat the Hokies, he’s going to have to have a big game.
Duke is averaging 21.7 yards per kickoff return, which ranks #62 in the country. If I were coaching the Blue Devils, I’d be tempted to let Crowder return kickoffs as well, though you don’t want to risk injury by overloading him.
Ross Martin (5-9, 185, So.) handles the kicking duties for the Blue Devils. He is 4-of-6 on the season. His misses came from 38 and 39 yards, and he hasn’t attempted any kicks from 40 yards or more this season. However, he’s perfectly capable. He was 20-of-23 on his field goal attempts last season and earned Freshman All-American awards from numerous publications.
Will Monday averages 43.4 yards per punt, and he has eight punts of 50 or more yards. Monday was a Freshman All-American last season as well. He and Ross Martin help make the Blue Devils very capable on special teams.
Random Talent Comparison
I’m certainly not saying that NFL Draft Scout is the end all, be all of NFL Draft projections. However, I like to use it. Let’s compare the talent on Duke’s offensive line to the talent on Virginia Tech’s offensive lines.
LT Takoby Cofield: #42 OT prospect in 2015
LG Dave Harding: #76 OG prospect in 2014
C Matt Skura: #31 C prospect in 2016
RG Laken Tomlinson: #20 OG prospect in 2015
RT Perry Simmons: #52 OT prospect in 2014
Now, for the Hokies:
LT Jonathan McLaughlin: unranked (it’s too early to rank true freshmen)
LG Caleb Farris: #45 OG prospect in 2015
C David Wang: unranked
RG Andrew Miller: #64 OG prospect in 2014
RT Brent Benedict: #18 OT prospect in 2015
I find it interesting that Brent Benedict is Tech’s highest rated offensive lineman, and I don’t think that ranking will hold up. Nick Becton was Tech’s best lineman last year, and he would be again this year, and he was only rated the #24 OT in last year’s draft class.
At any rate, I think those rankings are telling. Virginia Tech’s junior center isn’t even ranked. 71 different centers are ranked for 2015, but David Wang didn’t make the cut. Andrew Miller barely makes the cut at offensive guard.
Does Duke have a better offensive line than the Hokies? Based on those rankings, and the numbers they are putting up in the running game this year, I would say yes.
I believe that if the Hokies show up and play a good game on Saturday, they should be able to comfortably beat Duke. The Blue Devils have talent issues in the secondary that Logan Thomas and a rapidly improving offense can exploit, and as solid as Duke’s offense has been this year, they are facing arguably the best defense in the country. I’d be very surprised if Duke had success moving the football against the Tech defense, assuming the Tech defense is focused.
That being said, the Hokies are a funny team. They are very capable of winning out in the regular season. But they are also 1-2 bounces away from losing any game on their schedule thanks to the issues on offense. In 2011, Logan Thomas threw two red zone interceptions and Tyler Weiss missed a field goal, but the Hokies still managed to squeak out a 14-10 win over Duke. If that happens this week, I’m not sure Tech would win. The margin of error for this football team is very, very small.
The Hokies are 3-0 in the ACC, and they have not turned the ball over one single time in those three games. Yet their margin of victory in those wins was seven points, 10 points and 10 points. This team absolutely has to continue to not turn the football over.
Ultimately I like Tech to win in comfortable fashion this week, but if their turnover streak is broken then things could be dicey.
Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Duke 10
Will Stewart’s Take: Eventually, every team beats you. In the Big East days, the only team that never beat the Hokies was Rutgers, but that’s with an asterisk: the Scarlet Knights did beat VT in 1992, after the BE was formed, but before round-robin play began.
In the ACC, in Coastal Division play … well, okay, not only has Duke not beaten the Hokies in nine tries, but Virginia hasn’t, either. Outside the division, Maryland (0-4) and Wake Forest (0-4) are winless against the Hokies since 2004.
But eventually, everyone beats you. Ask Penn State how that Indiana game went this year.
When you look at these two teams, between the two of them they excel at one thing: Virginia Tech plays great defense, ranking in the top six nationally in every major category, including #2 in total defense. That alone should be enough to carry the Hokies to victory.
Big plays on special teams always carry the threat of shifting the balance, but mistakes — penalties and turnovers — are more likely to tell the tale. Here’s how the two teams rank in those categories:
- Penalties per game: Duke #33 in the nation, VT #51
- Penalty yards per game: VT #29, Duke #53
- Turnover margin: VT #6, Duke #69
Penalties are a wash, but we have discovered a second thing at which this team excels: Virginia Tech is among the nation’s leaders in turnover margin.
The formula of strong defense and winning the turnover battle will lead Virginia Tech to victory over Duke Every. Single. Time. Duke doesn’t possess the explosiveness on offense or athletic ability to overcome VT, if the Hokies play true to form.
Having said all that, something tells me the Hokies will turn the ball over in this game, but just once or twice; that’s a gut feel, nothing more. The game will again be too close for comfort, but the Hokies will do enough on defense and with the passing game to overcome a couple of offensive mistakes.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Duke 13