The Duke Blue Devils head into Winston-Salem to face the Wake Forest Demon Deacons tomorrow at 12:30 in Groves Stadium. Both teams enter the game at 3-1 and this is likely the first time that these two teams have met with records two games above .500 in quite some time. Due to the way the schedule falls, especially for Duke (with FSU, Clemson, Miami, UVA, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and UNC left), this game is as close to a "must-win" as one can get at this stage in the season.
Wake Forest has a schedule that is a little more forgiving (Clemson, Boston College, Maryland, N.C. State, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and UVA), but this win would go a long way in possibly securing a bowl bid for this season.
Although Duke bloggers are calling this game the "biggest game in the past 18 years", I have to wonder how this game is bigger than November 7th, 2009, when Duke squared off against arch-rival UNC. Duke stood at 5-3, winners of three ACC games in a row, and UNC at 5-3 as well. What game is bigger than a chance to secure bowl eligibility for the first time in 14 years against you most hated rival? Anyway, the Blue Devils fell in that game 19-6 and managed just 125 yards with Thaddeus Lewis at the helms.
I can buy that it's the biggest game since that season, but to say that it is the biggest game since 1994's trip to Tallahassee when the Blue Devils were ranked #13 is a gross overexaggeration in my opinion.
Regardless of the official title of it, this game has serious implications for both teams in terms of achieving their goal at the end of the year, so let's take a look at both teams and see what each has to do if they want to be successful tomorrow.
When Duke has the ball:
Overall, Duke has a very similar offensive gameplan to Wake Forest. They run a shotgun/pistol formation with play action fakes on nearly every single play. Conner Vernon is their Michael Campanaro, and Coach Cutcliffe keeps him in motion constantly to move the defense around and distract them from where the ball may be going. I don't think that Duke uses the "ghost" decoy as effectively as Wake Forest does with Camp, but Vernon caused all sorts of problems for the Tigers last week.
They can also run many different receiver sets as well. I saw trips, twins, two RB formations and many different variations of each one during the Memphis game on Saturday. I am excited for the Deacs to face a team that can throw the football well. Up to this point it has been all rushing teams that they have squared off against.
Bubble screens are Duke's best friend, and while they have come down from the 15 they ran against Stanford, they still utilize them frequently as an extension of the running game. Anybody familiar with the Wake Forest offense will see a lot of similarities in Duke's offense. I'm sure that the Wake Forest defense has prepared for this, but they must stay disciplined and tackle well if they want to keep Duke from succeeding with their screens.
In watching the Duke-Memphis game, as well as checking the stats throughout the season, Duke has a prolific passing attack that starts with QB Sean Renfree and ends with wide receivers Conner Vernon, Jamison Crowder and Desmond Scott. Vernon will likely break the ACC all-time receptions record of 232 tomorrow, currently held by Clemson's Aaron Kelly (2005-2008). He needs just five to tie it and six to break it. I'm guessing a bubble screen early in the second half will be the straw that breaks that camel's back.
The Bud Noel-Conner Vernon matchup is one that I have looked forward to all summer. One of the best receivers in the ACC vs. one of the best cornerbacks in the ACC. Noel hasn't seen a lot of balls thrown his way this season, but he will get plenty of play tomorrow against Renfree and Vernon. I know he is up for the challenge and can't wait to see what the results are.
The undercard to that battle is Kevin Johnson vs. Jamison Crowder, both outstanding players at their position in their own right. While they don't get the press that Bud and Conner do, they are both extremely valuable assets because if they play well they can push the ball in the area of their teammate where big plays can be made.
What Duke does not do well is run the football---at all.
Duke is 107th in the country in rushing yards per game at 112.75 yards. That is against FIU, Memphis, NCCU, Stanford. Without the Stanford game they would be at 141.3 YPG, which would rank 89th in the country. The reason I might take that game out is that they ran 23 times for 28 yards in that blowout loss.
The good news for Duke is that the Deacs rank 121st (out of 124 teams) in the country in opponent rushing yards per game at 265.50 yards per game. Without the Army game Wake would be at 211 yards per game against the run (105th in the country). It bears noting that Wake Forest has played the 1st and 8th best rushing attacks in the nation in their four games in Army and FSU respectively.
I do happen to think that the Wake Forest's rushing defensive numbers are absurdly inflated at this point in the season. It's hard to know at this juncture whether or not Wake is 121st because they have faced the 1st and 8th best rushing attacks in the country, or whether Army and FSU are 1st and 8th because they have faced the fourth worst rushing defense in the country. It's probably a combination of the two, but I tend to think that Wake has a much better rushing defense than they have shown so far this season.
Against UNC, (87th in the nation in rushing) the Deacs held the Tar Heels to 157 yards on 42 carries (3.74 YPC), and while that was without Giovani Bernard, the Heels still had A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, both of whom have run for over 5 yards per carry up to this point in the season. Having nose guard Nikita Whitlock back will also help these numbers out.
If the Deacs can limit the Blue Devils to around 100 yards on the ground then I think they have an excellent chance of limiting the Duke offense overall. Duke doesn't trust their ground game very much, but perhaps built some confidence in the second-half of the Memphis game. They didn't utilize their size advantage up front against an inferior Memphis defensive line, opting instead to run out of the shotgun and to the outside (sound familiar?).
Based on what I saw in that game, I think freshman (and former Wake Forest recruit) Jela Duncan is the Blue Devils best bet to be successful running the football. Juwan Thompson and Josh Snead are both battling injuries and had some fumbling problems against Memphis. If I were Coach Cutcliffe I give Duncan the start and see what he can do.
Another critical factor to consider is that flex player Brandon Connette is questionable with a leg injury sustained on Saturday against Memphis. Connette is the back-up QB, but lines up at TE, FB, H-Back, and even wide receiver in some plays. In this season alone Connette has already become the first Duke player since 2000 to throw, run and catch a TD pass in the same season. He did that in the first 4 games for the Blue Devils.
If Connette can't go (I expect him to do everything he can to play), then it would be a pretty big loss to Duke because of the opportunities he presents for them. He can run the option read effectively, stretch out the defense, and pretty much demand attention for himself with a spy from the defense. This frees up room in the middle of the field for Vernon and Crowder to get the ball on short slants and curls.
Duke also cannot turn the ball over like they have been doing this season if they want to win this game. The Blue Devils come into this game with a -4 turnover margin (they turned the ball over four times alone last week), while the Deacs come in with a +4 margin. That's a pretty big thing to look at when a game is supposed to be as close as this one is. Especially considering the Deacs have found a way to win all of the close ones in the last 12 games between these two teams.
When Wake Forest has the ball:
Wake Forest, as always, relies on a misdirection and deceptive offensive attack used to punish teams that are undisciplined on any given play. This is done through play actions on nearly every play, slot receiver motions, reverses, fake handoffs, wildcat formations, and anything else that can throw the opposing defense off for even a split second. It seems that offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke has come around a little bit and figured out a good balance of what works and what doesn't work.
Coach Lobotzke is an outstanding offensive mind, most criticisms come from the fact that he has a gameplan and it seems that in certain situations he calls plays that don't seem to fit the need of that play. I think he has done a much better job in situational play-calls this year. Kudos to him and the offense as a whole for overcoming youth and inexperience on the O-Line and utilizing the players that we have to be effective.
Last week, Wake Forest finally got their ground game going against Army's woeful rushing defense. DeAndre Martin and Josh Harris combined for 244 yards on 25 carries (9.76 YPC), aided by a long TD run for each of them. While the run game is still a pretty big concern considering the Deacs output up to last week, and the fact that Army's rush defense ranks 113th in the country (8 spots ahead of Wake's), it shows that the Deacs can run the football if push comes to shove.
I would like to see the Deacs run it down Duke's throat early (which I expect both teams to do, leading to a bit of a lower scoring affair than most are predicting) and set the tone for the game. If Harris and Martin can find some success early on it will free up room for Michael Campanaro to tear up the Duke's injury-riddled secondary.
Duke ranks 24th in the country in rushing defense, but once again, it is hard to tell how good they are because of the schedule that they have played. They did limit Stanford to 92 yards on 26 carries, but Stanford has struggled in the run against at times this year as well, ranking 90th in rushing yards per game.
Duke runs the 4-2-5 defense, which Wake Forest saw against Larry Fedora and the UNC Tar Heels. In that game Wake Forest had trouble establishing the run against a very talented front six of UNC. Duke doesn't have the same type of talent level that UNC does defensively, but they do have a pretty impressive defensive back in Russ Cockrell, who leads the country in passes defended (three interceptions, seven passes broken up). I expect Cockrell to guards Camp for a lot of the game.
The problem with Michael Campanaro and Conner Vernon is that they move around so much that it creates serious mismatches where they might get a linebacker or a slower safety cover them. That obviously can't happen if you are the defensive coordinator, so do you take your best CB and put him in the slot, exposing the out receiver, or do you zone coverage a little more and rely on the defensive unit as a whole to try to stop the best player.
If it's up to me I absolutely take Cockrell and Noel and put them on Camp and Vernon respectively. If the opposing team is going to beat my team it's not going to be with their best player. I take my chances with my best defensive player against their best offensive player, if my guy loses heads-up then I tip my hat to the other team and move on to the next week.
In terms of the outside receiver, Sherman Ragland III is getting the start again, but I expect to see a healthy dose of Brandon Terry as well given how good he is at blocking for Michael Campanaro. We need one of these guys to step up and start making catches and I think both are maturing and understanding the role that needs to be filled for the offense to be successful.
Earlier in the week I made a couple of jokes on Twitter that if the line is under 100 then everybody should go take the free money that Vegas is handing out. Well, the line game down at 60 (Wake -3), and after watching both teams play I think that the game, while still being a higher scoring game than your average college matchup, will not be as high scoring as originally anticipated.
I expect the first quarter to be a little slower than it has been in previous Wake-Duke matchups, as both teams try to establish the run and get some jabs in before going for the haymakers in the second half. Whichever team can get their run game going first stands an excellent chance of winning the football game.
I think that both Campanaro and Vernon will get their statistics, and really there isn't a lot that either defense can do to stop it. It's all about containing each player after they get the ball and limiting their success in yards after the catch.
The X-Factor in this game is going to be the turnover battle in my opinion. As I mentioned earlier in the article, Wake Forest is +4 in the turnover margin while Duke is -4 on the season. If the trend holds then Wake Forest will be +2 in this game. Those two extra possessions will likely be exactly what the Deacs need to take the lead and hold onto it for good.
The streak lives on in my opinion!!! I think at the end of the day Wake Forest will make that big play that they have consistently made against Duke, especially in the past 5-7 years. I'm ready for Bud Noel to have his coming out party for this year. I want to see some deflections, some picks, and a big defensive TD that turns the game to the Deacs side.
This should be a pretty entertaining game to watch, with both teams have the same strengths and weaknesses. There will be a lot of fireworks and I just hope that the Deacs have the ball last because that team is the one that will win the game.