First, if you missed any of these recent posts, give them a look:
I asked five questions about the Blue Devils to Duke beat writer Laura Keeley. She provided answers.
And yesterday’s injury report doesn’t look so hot for the Hokies, with Kyle Fuller (groin) questionable and Brandon Facyson (concussion) doubtful.
Duke at No. 16 Virginia Tech
- Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg (65,632)
- When: 3:32 p.m., Saturday
- TV: ESPNU
- Records: Duke (5-2, 1-2 ACC), Virginia Tech (6-1, 3-0 ACC)
- Series: Hokies lead 13-7
- Last meeting: Hokies won 41-20 in Blacksburg last year
- Line: Virginia Tech by 13.5
When Virginia Tech passes
A week off was just what quarterback Logan Thomas needed to get over some various bumps and bruises, although he was playing pretty well through the pain. In three ACC games he has completed 65 percent of his passes for 251 yards a game, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. In fact, he’s thrown 109 passes without a pick, 10 shy of his career best. He’s done a pretty good job of having a couple of favorite targets (Demitri Knowles and Willie Byrn, who have 44 catches, 695 yards and 3 touchdowns between them) while spreading things around. Freshman tight end Kalvin Cline caught his first touchdown pass last week and seems to be improving by the week. The protection has been OK, although Pitt got to Thomas three times two weeks ago, which was the most sacks the Hokies have given up in a game this year.
Unlike late last year, Duke isn’t giving up a ton of yards in the air. The Blue Devils rank 45th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (216.3), although their pass efficiency defense is slightly worse (88th, 136.27). Senior cornerback Ross Cockrell is an All-ACC performer, who’s tied on Duke’s career list with 33 pass breakups. He also has 10 career picks. But he has some help back there this year. Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash is a safety by title but he plays near the line, making an ACC-best 66 tackles. He also has two picks, so he is a play-maker in the secondary. The Blue Devils are a little lighter than usual in the secondary, however, with starting safety Dwayne Norman out with a leg injury. Up front, defensive end Kenny Anunike, who’s battled injuries his entire career, leads the way with four sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. The Blue Devils average about two a game. Duke might be improved here, but it is still a group that gave up 424 yards and six touchdowns to Pittsburgh. Troy threw for 362. There’s yardage to be had here.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Virginia Tech runs
The Hokies spent a good chunk of time on the bye week trying to figure out what ails a running game that’s averaging only 117.6 yards per game and a meager 3.3 yards per rush. The answer? It’s a little bit of everything and not something that’s going to get fixed overnight. But Duke was a game last year in which a struggling Hokies ground game found its legs. J.C. Coleman was the one who starred in that contest, with 183 rushing yards and two long touchdown runs. He’s finally back to nearly 100 percent after spraining both ankles in the preseason and could get a bigger workload to go along with Trey Edmunds. Thomas has run 16 times or more in three of the last four games, so he’s bound to shoulder some of the load as well. The o-line will be the key. They had time to heal up on the bye (center David Wang said his shoulder feels great), so it’ll be intersting to see if a healthy group gets back to having that push that it showed flashes of very early in the season.
Duke’s defense relies on its experience, especially up front. The two-deep for the defensive line features five players who are at least in their fourth year with the program. Teams have run against the Blue Devils for 166.9 yards per game (70th nationally), although that figure is skewed by the Blue Devils having played two option teams (Georgia Tech and Navy). Linebacker Kelby Brown, who missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, is back and is tied for ninth in the ACC with 7.8 tackles per game. He made 17 tackles against Georgia Tech, so he can get to the ballcarrier. As previously mentioned, Cash and the safeties will help out plenty in run support. After him, outside linebacker David Helton is next on the team with 59 tackles. Duke’s run D is probably why it’s so good in the red zone. The Blue Devils have held opponents scoreless on six of 23 trips to the red zone, the fourth best mark in the ACC. Until Virginia Tech proves it can run the ball on anyone, opponents will continue to get the edge here.
When Duke passes
As you’d expect for a David Cutcliffe-coached team, Duke’s quarterbacks have been really solid. The tandem of Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette have combined for 1,884 yards and 17 touchdown to eight interceptions this year. How about these for passing numbers? Duke is second in the ACC in completions and completion percentage, third in touchdowns, fourth in yards and fifth in efficiency. Boone, who is 5-0 as a starter, is back from a broken collarbone and doesn’t appear to have missed a beat. He’s thrown for 540 yards and five touchdowns in games against Navy and UVa since returning from his injury. Receiver Jamison Crowder is Duke’s biggest weapon. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound receiver leads the ACC with 56 catches for 731 yards. Duke will get him the ball almost anyway it can, especially on screens, where his athleticism can take over. Tight end Braxton Deaver is a threat across the middle, with 20 catches for 296 yards and three touchdowns. Duke has blocked well, giving up only nine sacks this year.
The Blue Devils might be catching the Hokies at just the right time. Virginia Tech is third nationally in both passing defense (165.0 ypg) and pass efficiency defense (93.85), but it has some injury concerns. Cornerback Antone Exum is back and just in time, since Kyle Fuller (groin) is questionable and Facyson (concussion) is doubtful. If Kyle can go, the starting lineup will be Kyle and Exum at regular corners, with Kendall Fuller at nickel. But if Kyle and Facyson can’t go, that means either sophomore Donovan Riley or true freshman Chuck Clark will be thrust into the lineup somewhere. That could create some vulnerabilities, especially since Tech doesn’t quite know how Exum will react to being back in a game situation. Pass rush will be huge. The Hokies, who lead the country with 27 sacks, had eight against Pittsburgh, although Duke gets rid of the ball quicker. The Hokies’ strength up front is its depth, though. Six players have at least three sacks, so the pressure could be coming from any direction. Duke will have to be prepared for that. No Virginia Tech opponent has really handled it well.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Duke runs
The Blue Devils don’t have one featured back. The quartet of Juwan Thompson, Josh Snead, Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell have combined for 136.5 yards per game and a 5.5-yard per carry average. All four are averaging at least 4.4 yards per carry. Duke has run for 182.7 yards per game, a far more balanced attack than last year, when the Blue Devils ranked 98th nationally in rushing (125.23 ypg). This year’s average would be Duke’s highest since 1977, when it averaged 198.6 yards per game on the ground. Connette presents an additional problem. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound quarterback has 24 career rushing touchdowns, including seven this year. The junior has multiple touchdowns (either passing or running) in seven of the last eight games. He’s responsible for 19 touchdowns this year, third in the ACC.
The Hokies haven’t given up much on the ground this year. ranking sixth nationally by giving up 91.0 yards per game. The defensive front has shut down most anything teams have thrown at them. Linebacker Jack Tyler has quietly amassed a team-high 57 tackles, with safety Kyshoen Jarrett (40) and linebacker Tariq Edwards (38) next. Pittsburgh finished with only 23 rushing yards last time the Hokies played, so it’s clear that Tech is pretty good at shutting down pro-style run games. But Duke offers more of a challenge, spreading things out and running oftentimes with the quarterback. That’s one thing that’s gotten to the Hokies’ this year. Marshall’s Rakeem Cato ran for 46 yards. North Carolina’s Marquise Williams ran for 56. So quarterbacks who can move occasionally prove to be problematic for Tech’s aggressive front. Still, this group has been solid at shutting down other teams’ running backs.
Edge: Virginia Tech
The Hokies have one big thing going for them here: A.J. Hughes, who was just named as a candidate for the Ray Guy Award, leads the ACC and is eighth nationally with a 45.3-yard punting average. Other than that, it’s a lot of question marks. Neither the kick nor punt return games have gotten going this year. Kicker Cody Journell has been hit or miss, capable of missing four kicks in one game and winning ACC Specialist of the Week honors in another. The coverage units are improving but still aren’t on the level of last year.
Duke, meanwhile, is solid here. The Blue Devils rank second in the ACC in both kickoff (19.9 yards) and punt coverage (3.6 yards). The longest kickoff return Duke has allowed this season went for 34 yards against Memphis. Duke leads the ACC and ranks eighth nationally with a 41.3 net punting average, helped by Will Monday‘s 43.4-yard average. And Crowder leads the ACC and is fifth nationally averaging 17.5 yards per punt return. He has two returns for touchdowns – from 82 and 76 yards. Kicker Ross Martin has made 4 of 6 field goals, but other than that, Duke seems to have a significant advantage here.
You won’t find two coaching staffs that go out of their way to praise each other more than Frank Beamer‘s at Tech and Cutcliffe’s at Duke. There’s a mutual respect between the two and deservedly so, since both have been doing things pretty well for a long time. Beamer’s done it all at Tech, while Cutcliffe has forged his reputation as an offensive guru at stops in Tennessee, Ole Miss and now Duke (anyone who molded the Mannings knows a thing or two about quarterbacks). Again, the edge here goes to the team that is getting the best coaching at one particular group. And that’s still Virginia Tech with Bud Foster, who has solved every riddle presented to him this year — pro-style, spread, option, whatever. Duke is another challenge and will be well-coached within its offensive scheme, but Foster has been up to every challenge so far. There’s not any big reason to think that will change.
Edge: Virginia Tech
I’ll agree with what people have been saying about the Blue Devils this week: this is not the Duke teams of old. There’s plenty of talent across the board and it looks like an improved version of the team that got to bowl eligibility last year before being overwhelmed by a backloaded schedule that exposed many of the team’s flaws. I think if Virginia Tech takes Duke lightly, this could be a game. But I don’t think the Hokies will for a couple reasons. A) They’re coming off a bye, having had plenty of time to prepare for this contest. And B) Duke gave them one heck of a wakeup call last year jumping out to a 20-0 lead in Lane Stadium. So it’s not like the Blue Devils will take the Hokies by surprise. And for all of Duke’s improvements, it still hasn’t beaten one of the conference’s heavyweights. Cutcliffe has 10 ACC win in six years. Five of those are against Virginia and only one (last year against UNC) was against a team that would finish with a winning record. Just looking at this year’s schedule, the Blue Devils haven’t exactly gotten to five wins against top-notch competition. Their four FBS wins have come against teams with a combined 10-16 record. So while Duke is improved, I don’t think it’s quite there yet. I said 30-13 earlier this week. I’ll bump it up a little bit, given the uncertainty in Virginia Tech’s secondary, but I still think the Hokies win comfortably.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 30, Duke 16