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- Time: 12:30
- TV: The ACC Network
Virginia Tech will return home to Lane Stadium this weekend hoping to get back in the win column after two disappointing losses.
With a 3-3 record, the Hokies are flirting with not going to a bowl game for the first time since 1992. If they lose to Florida State, Miami and Clemson (games in which the Hokies will be underdogs), Tech will have to win all three games against Duke, BC and UVA to become bowl eligible. That means they can’t afford to lose this Saturday’s matchup with Duke.
This is not your typical Duke team. The Blue Devils are 5-1, and they’ve won four consecutive contests. Their wins have not come over good teams, but for a program that hasn’t gone to a bowl game since 1994, every win is huge. If they beat a struggling Virginia Tech team on the road this weekend, it would be a banner victory for the David Cutcliffe era, and it would put the Blue Devils in the postseason.
These teams are at the opposite ends of the spectrum right now. The Hokies are down and disappointed after a bad start to the season, while the Blue Devils are hot and buoyed with confidence. Wait, did I just type that last sentence?
The Duke Offense
Here’s now Duke’s offense looks in the national standings:
Pass Efficiency: #39
Sacks allowed: #11
Duke does a good job protecting the passer, and Sean Renfree (6-5, 225, r-Sr.) and Anthony Boone (6-0, 235, r-So.) have done a good job getting rid of the football. Renfree was David Cutcliffe’s first major recruit, choosing the Blue Devils over Stanford, Nebraska, Georgia Tech, Boise State, Arizona State, and others.
Renfree has had an excellent career, and this season he is completing 72% of his passes for 1,282 yards, with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s very experienced, and he knows Cutcliffe’s offense inside out. His backup, Anthony Boone, threw four touchdowns and no interceptions in last week’s 42-17 win over UVA, with Renfree out with an injury. Both quarterbacks are getting reps with the #1 offense this week. Don’t be surprised if we see them both on Saturday.
Conner Vernon (6-1, 200, Sr.) is the most productive receiver in the history of the ACC – literally. He has 239 career receptions, which is the most ever amongst ACC players. He still has six regular season games remaining to add to his total. This year he has 41 receptions for 555 yards and five touchdowns. Vernon has been starting since his true freshman season.
The two other major weapons in the passing game are Jamison Crowder (5-9, 175, So.) and Desmond Scott (5-9, 190, Sr.). Crowder has 38 catches for 461 yards and three touchdowns, while Scott has 36 receptions for 342 yards and one touchdown. Scott is a converted running back who had offers from half the SEC coming out of high school.
The Duke running game doesn’t put up huge numbers, but the running back by committee approach has been effective for the Blue Devils.
Jela Duncan (5-10, 200, Fr.): 41 carries for 250 yards, 6.1 ypc, 2 TD’s.
Juwan Thompson (5-11, 225, Jr.): 42 carries, 194 yards, 4.6 ypc, 1 TD
Josh Snead (5-9, 170, r-So.): 37 carries, 156 yards, 4.2 ypc, 2 TD
Totals: 120 carries, 600 yards, 5.0 ypc, 5 TDs
Duncan is a true freshman who is Duke’s most talented back. The Charlotte area player had offers from UNC, South Carolina, Pitt and Purdue coming out of Mallard Creek High School. The Blue Devils obviously don’t bludgeon teams with the running game, but they are good enough to keep defenses honest. If Anthony Boone is in the game at quarterback, he can also play a major role in the running game.
The offensive line looks like this:
LT Takoby Cofield (6-4, 305, r-So.): 8 career starts
LG Dave Harding (6-4, 285, r-Jr.): 20 career starts
C Brian Moore (6-2, 285, r-Sr.: 33 career starts
RG Laken Tomlinson (6-3, 320, r-So.): 18 career starts
RT Perry Simmons (6-5, 300, r-Jr.): 30 career starts
Duke has always struggled up front, but the coaching staff has finally managed to build an offensive line that has a lot of experience. All of their starters, with the exception of Perry Simmons, held other BCS conference offers coming out of high school, including some major schools from the ACC, SEC and Big Ten. That’s a major talent upgrade for the Blue Devils.
Besides winning more football games, David Cutcliffe has also given the Blue Devils a major recruiting upgrade. Duke sports many starters on offense who had offers from major BCS programs. You can’t run a good program without good players, and Cutcliffe has used his system and Duke’s academic reputation to recruit his type of players to Durham.
Overall, this offense is as experienced as any the Hokies will face this season. Virginia Tech’s defense will have to be very disciplined. The Blue Devils are a well-coached offense, and you can be sure the experienced Duke offense will take advantage of any mistake the Tech defense might make. Considering what we’ve seen the last few weeks, that has the potential to create major problems for the Hokies.
The Duke Defense
Like many teams these days, Duke employs a 4-2-5 defensive scheme to counter the many spread offenses seen in college football. Here are their numbers for the season:
Pass Efficiency Defense: #36
On the whole, Duke is a mediocre defensive team, just like many other teams who put so much emphasis on a spread passing game. Though they did beat UVA 42-17, the Blue Devils were actually outgained in total yardage, and allowed over 400 yards of total offense. The Hokies are perfectly capable of moving the ball and scoring this Saturday.
The Blue Devils feature a pair of good defensive ends in Kenny Anunike (6-5, 260, r-Sr.) and Dezmond Johnson (6-4, 250, r-So.). Anunike has 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks six games into the season. He was having a big season last year before a knee injury sidelined him after just four games. His opposite, Johnson, has 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
Fortunately for the Hokies, Duke’s strength up front matches up perfectly with Virginia Tech’s strength on offense: offensive tackle. Nick Becton and Vinston Painter have been good for the Hokies this year, particularly Becton. Logan Thomas has barely been touched by a pass rush coming from the outside. I like the chances of Becton and Painter limiting Anunike and Johnson in this game.
On the inside, the Hokies will face Virginia Beach native Jamal Wallace (6-4, 275, r-So.). Wallace came up as a defensive end, and nobody projected him to be a defensive tackle in college. He has 1.5 sacks through six games. Against Virginia Tech’s offensive line last season, Wallace notched two tackles for loss, one sack and a forced fumble. In the other 11 games of the 2011 season, he had just 0.5 TFL, no sacks and no forced fumbles.
The other tackle is Sydney Sarmiento (6-4, 300, r-Jr.), who has three tackles for loss and a sack on the season. He is Duke’s most experienced defensive lineman, having started 29 consecutive games.
Here’s a bad sign for Duke’s defense: their top four tacklers are defensive backs.
S Walt Canty (6-1, 220, Sr.): 53 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks
CB Ross Cockrell (6-0, 180, r-Jr.): 34 tackles, 1 TFL, 4 INT
S Brandon Braxton (6-1, 210, Jr.): 28 tackles, 1.5 TFL
S Jordon Byas (6-1, 220, Sr.): 28 tackles, 2 TFL, 0.5 sacks
Canty is Duke’s most active defender. He’s a very big safety who can be brought up as part of an 8-man front, and he likes to play in the backfield. Dwayne Norman (6-1, 195, Fr.) is also expected to see a lot of action for the Blue Devils at safety. Expect the Hokies to go right after the true freshman when he’s in the game.
The other cornerback, Lee Butler (5-11, 185, r-Sr.) has 23 career starts under his belt and is one of the most experienced players on the defensive side of the ball.
Duke’s starting linebackers are Austin Gamble (6-1, 245, Sr.) and C.J. France (6-0, 230, r-So.). Gamble is the most experienced linebacker, and they also have a little bit of depth in David Helton (6-4, 230, So.). Overall, I would describe Duke’s linebackers as serviceable, and nothing more. This is a team I believe Virginia Tech normally would be able to run the ball against, but with the way the Tech interior line has been playing, all bets are off.
Duke has less talent on the defensive side of the ball. When you go through the offer lists of their offensive players, you see UNC, South Carolina, Auburn, Tennessee, Penn State, and even Florida in one case. Not so on the defensive side of the ball. Most of Duke’s defensive players had at best 1-2 BCS conference offers, with the rest of their offers coming from the MAC, CUSA, or other small conference schools.
As bad as Virginia Tech has been offensively, they have still shown an ability to hit big plays. They are averaging 376 yards per game, which is a lot better than the 2006-08 days (295 yards, 330 yards and 303 yards, respectively). The Hokies should be able to move the football and score points against this defense.
This is an area of the game where Virginia Tech could potentially gain an advantage. Duke starts a lot of young players at big spots on special teams.
PK and KO: Ross Martin (5-9, 185, Fr.)
P and H: Will Monday (6-4, 210, r-Fr.)
KO Return: Tim Burton (5-9, 180, r-Fr.)
That’s a lot of critical spots in which Duke is playing true freshmen or r-freshmen. Their special teams rankings show that the Blue Devils aren’t good in this phase of the game.
Net punting: #47
KO returns: #105
Punt returns: #18
Punt return yards defense: #109
Kick return yards defense: #90
Duke lacks depth throughout at most positions, so their special teams players generally have less talent than many of the teams they face, especially foes from other BCS conferences. I feel like the Hokies have a big advantage on special teams, and they could be able to make a big play or two.
Duke is a confident football team right now. They play in a good system, they are well-coached, and they have two good quarterbacks. At 5-1, they are one game away from being bowl eligible. Here’s the problem: their upcoming schedule.
at Virginia Tech
at Georgia Tech
All of those football teams possess more talent than Duke. The programs Duke has defeated so far – FIU, NC Central, Memphis, Wake Forest and UVA – do not have the talent that the last six teams on their schedule possess. Despite the great start, it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion that Duke will make a bowl. They will have to keep playing well, and they are going to have to beat somebody with superior talent along the way.
Like it or not, from top to bottom, Virginia Tech was not the more talented team than North Carolina last weekend. Examine their offense, player by player, and compare it to Tech’s. Which offense would you take, coaching aside? I’d take UNC’s. They have better wide receivers, better offensive linemen, better running backs and better tight ends, and Bryn Renner is a very solid quarterback. Defensively, it would be a wash, if Tech’s defensive players were playing up to their ability. But on the whole, I feel like the talent level swung a little bit UNC’s way in that game. At best, it was equal.
That won’t be the case with Duke. Tech still has better talent than the Blue Devils. Much better, actually. The Hokies were more talented than Pitt and Cincinnati, whom they lost to, but they are even more talented than Duke. So far in Lane Stadium, the Tech defense has allowed just 258.3 yards per game and eight points per game. After a week in which the defense was put through the basics when it comes to hitting, tackling and getting off blocks, I’m inclined to believe that they’ll give a much better account of themselves this weekend.
However, the biggest question right now is character. How much does this Tech team want it? If they fall behind, do they have the character on defense to get a critical stop, and do they have the character on offense to rally? I don’t know the answers to those questions.
The Hokies have significantly more talent than Duke, and they are playing at home. That’s enough for me to pick them to win. After all, what are the chances of Duke winning five consecutive games? That hasn’t happened since 1994, when the Blue Devils started 7-0. I’m picking Virginia Tech, and I could see it being very close, and if Tech’s talent actually shows up to play, I could also see it being a blowout.
Chris Coleman’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Duke 20
Will Stewart’s Take: I love — love — what David Cutcliffe has done for Duke. I just hope he doesn’t do it to Virginia Tech Saturday.
In my best Taylor Swift impersonation — ahem, clear throat — I am never, ever, ever, ever picking Duke to beat the Hokies. Like … ever.
Will Stewart’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 33, Duke 27