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Virginia Tech and #23 Duke play a critical football game on Saturday. For the Hokies, a win would even their record at .500. It’s imperative that Tech beat Duke. If they don’t, it will mean they’ll have to win three of their last four games to qualify for a bowl game. For the Blue Devils, a win on Saturday will mean a 3-0 start in the ACC, and they’ll be one step closer to a Coastal Division championship.
Recently, Tech and Duke generally play close games…
2014: 17-16 W
2013: 13-10 L
2012: 41-20 W
2011: 14-10 W
Over the last four years, only the final score in 2012 was not close. Even that final score is a bit misleading, as Duke actually got up 20-0 before the Hokies came roaring back. At this point I think it’s safe to assume that this Saturday’s game will be very close.
Before we get into the preview, Bud Foster, Charley Wiles, Michael Brewer and Cam Phillips talk about the team, the Miami loss, and look ahead to Duke.
The Duke Offense, Advanced Stats
Here’s a look at the Duke offense when compared to the Tech defense. First, the offense…
Success Rate: #104
Explosive Plays: #95
And now, the Tech defense…
Success Rate: #17
Explosive Plays: #123
Despite Duke’s gaudy record, their offense has not been good. Here’s how their total yards have broken down game-by-game…
NC Central: 655
Georgia Tech: 279
Boston College: 228
The Blue Devils have done very well against weak competition, but the three Power 5 teams they have faced have shut down their offense.
Thomas Sirk and the Passing Game
Virginia Tech took on one of their greatest challenges of the season last week when they faced Brad Kaaya and an extremely talented group of Miami receivers. They won’t be facing that kind of a challenge this week.
Sirk (6-4, 215, r-Jr.) is in his first year as a starter. His stats are modestly good (62.4%, 1,260 yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs). However, he struggled against the three Power 5 conference teams he faced.
Northwestern: 24-of-39, 150 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT. 150 yards on 39 attempts is not good.
Georgia Tech: 17-of-25, 114 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs. Sirk almost spoiled a great defensive effort.
Boston College: 18-of-36, 195 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT. BC has one of the nation’s best defenses.
Sirk racked up nearly all his stats against teams with inferior talent, and struggled against the three teams he faced who had a pulse. That being said, he doesn’t have the most talented group of wide receivers to fall back on.
Johnell Barnes (6-0, 170, Jr.): Barnes leads the team with 20 catches for 266 yards and one touchdown. His other Power 5 scholarship offers were Iowa State and Northwestern.
Max McCaffrey (6-2, 195, Sr.): McCaffrey is the son of former Denver Bronco Ed McCaffrey. He has 19 receptions for 266 yards and a touchdown. His only other scholarship offer came from Wake Forest.
TJ Rahming (5-10, 165, Fr.): Rahming is a true freshman who has caught 19 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown. He’s probably the most talented of the Duke wide receivers, but he’s also the youngest.
Braxton Deaver (6-5, 240, r-Sr.) is a sixth year senior, and he’s been very productive for Duke in the past. However, he has just four catches on the season, and it’s likely that he’s not 100%.
Sirk also targets his tailbacks a lot. The Blue Devils haven’t been able to make big plays against decent competition, so the focus has been on getting the ball out of the pocket early and avoiding turnovers. They’ve been able to do that well, but to consistently beat a Tech defense that has been susceptible to the big play, they’ll have to make plays down the field.
The Duke Running Game
The Blue Devils run a ton of read option, and quarterback Thomas Sirk actually leads them in rushing with 321 yards (4.3 yard per carry). On the whole, the running game is averaging 180.7 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry.
Duke will try to establish a running game against the Hokies to run clock. They know they aren’t going to put up a ton of points, but they’ll attempt to play smart, turnover free football while waiting for the Tech offense to make a mistake. Sounds like a familiar formula, huh? But will it work?
Here are Duke’s rushing numbers against Power 5 competition…
Northwestern: 177 yards, 5.1 ypc
Georgia Tech: 165 yards, 4.6 ypc
Boston College: 33 yards, 0.9 ypc
Boston College is a whole different animal. The Eagles destroyed the Florida State offensive line early this year, shut down Dalvin Cook, and held the Seminoles to one offensive touchdown.
The Blue Devils have a solid group of running backs led by Shaq Powell (5-10, 205, Sr.) and Shaun Wilson (5-9, 180, So.). Veteran Jela Duncan (5-10, 210, r-Jr.) is also very capable. However, the offensive line isn’t quite as good as it was a year ago. Right guard Laken Tomlinson was drafted in the first round by the Detroit Lions, and he’s started four games as a rookie. They haven’t been able to replace his strength on the inside.
Thomas Sirk isn’t likely to beat Virginia Tech with his arm. Therefore it’s imperative that the Hokies shut down the Duke running game. If they can do that, they’ll put all the pressure on a quarterback who hasn’t performed well, and on a group of wide receivers that lacks overall talent and athleticism.
The Duke Defense, Advanced Stats
The Duke defense has been excellent this year. Here’s a look at their numbers…
Success Rate: #5
Explosive Plays: #2
And here’s how the Tech offense matches up…
Success Rate: #78
Explosive Plays: #86
On paper, this isn’t a particularly good matchup for the Tech offense. However, let’s dig a little deeper and look at the S&P+ offensive ranking for each team the Blue Devils have faced…
Georgia Tech: #43
Boston College: #124
The Duke defense has faced four of the worst offenses in the country, and even Georgia Tech’s offense is fairly limited this season. While the Blue Devil defense is good, they probably aren’t quite as good as their numbers indicate.
A Defense That’s Tough to Prepare For
When you watch Duke play defense, they aren’t all that different from Virginia Tech’s past defenses that used primarily a whip linebacker instead of a nickel. They are undersized up front, and they are undersized at linebacker. However, they are very tough and extremely smart.
Duke’s high-IQ players allow their defensive coaches to do more from an X’s and O’s standpoint. Quarterback Michael Brewer explained it perfectly on Tuesday…
“Well it sounds pretty cliché, but Duke, they’re extremely smart,” Brewer said. “They are able to line up in so many different defensive looks. That’s made it hard on teams to game plan. You never know what you’re going to get. You might go 12 snaps in a row of a different coverage, blitz and front. It’s pretty wild how they can be so good and so sharp in so many different things. Not a lot of teams can do that. That’s why they’ve had a lot of success…you aren’t always going to be in the perfect play against these guys.”
That pretty much sums it up. You’ve got to be a pretty smart guy to get into Duke, and their coaching staff has taken advantage of that by installing a multi-front, multi-coverage defense that is very difficult to prepare for.
Jeremy Cash Makes a Huge Impact
Arguably the best defensive player in the ACC will be on the field in Lane Stadium on Saturday, and he won’t be playing for Virginia Tech. Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash (6-2, 205, r-Sr.) plays what amounts to Virginia Tech’s old whip position. He lines up in the slot against spread formations, and he can also play up around the line of scrimmage and make big plays against the run.
Cash is such a gifted and versatile player that the Duke coaches used him in a similar way against Georgia Tech that Bud Foster used Kyle Fuller back in 2015.
Here’s a highlight video of his past seasons. You might want to turn your volume down.
For the season (6 games) Cash has 47 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. When you’ve got double digit tackles for loss halfway through the season, then you’re having a great year. Not only will Cash easily be a First Team All-ACC player, he will also make some All-American lists. NFLDraft Scout.com rates him as the #1 strong safety prospect for the 2016 Draft.
The Hokies will have to account for Cash at all times. He is equally effective in the passing game (coverage and blitzing) and running game. Keep your eye on #16 in blue on Saturday afternoon.
This game isn’t particularly difficult to preview. The Blue Devils are limited on offense, so they will try to limit turnovers and make Virginia Tech’s offense beat them. Likewise, we don’t know exactly what to expect from the Hokie offense with Michael Brewer returning. They could be somewhat conservative knowing that they are facing a very limited offense. With both offenses playing a conservative style, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll see a fairly low scoring game on Saturday.
Defensively, the Hokies need to play in the backfield. Duke isn’t a dynamic offense by any stretch, but they generally do a good job of staying out of long yardage situations. This is not an offense that can covert a lot of third and sevens or longer. Last season the Hokies had nine tackles for loss and four sacks, and Anthony Boone and the limited Duke passing attack could not break through. Facing long yardage situations, Boone’s final numbers were 18-of-40 for 181 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
That is Tech’s recipe for success in 2015 as well. The only differences between 2014 and 2015 is that Duke has less experience at quarterback, and wide receiver Jamison Crowder now plays for the Washington Redskins. On the other hand, Kendall Fuller is on crutches, and the Tech secondary has less experience than it did a year ago. Still, Tech’s defensive backs have a talent advantage over the Blue Devil wideouts and Thomas Sirk.
If the Hokies can stop the running game, they’ll force Sirk and those receivers to play right into Bud Foster’s hands. I know the Hokies have been struggling recently, but I picked them to beat Duke last season because I thought they had a matchup advantage, and I feel the same way this year. Tech will beat a ranked Blue Devil team for the second year in a row (that sounds weird, doesn’t it?).
Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 23, Duke 17
Will Stewart’s Take: As you know, my game predictions lately have eschewed breakdowns and analysis, and this one will be no different.
The 2013 Duke game is the one that signaled that something was about to go very wrong with Virginia Tech football. After a dodgy 2012 that saw the Hokies lose five of six games at one point, then win three in a row to finish 7-6, Tech started out 2013 with a 6-1 record and a #16 ranking. All appeared right in the Hokie football world.
Then Logan Thomas threw four interceptions and Virginia Tech lost to Duke at home, 13-10.
Since then, including that game, the Hokies have gone 12-14. Curse you, Duke, you broke Hokie football!
None of that has anything to do with predicting this game. I’ll put it this way: For some unknown reason, I’m calmly, supremely confident that the Hokies are going to win this game. Chris’ preview didn’t change my thinking.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Duke 13