Duke will end its 2003 home schedule this weekend against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. For Duke, this is a final opportunity for this year's seniors to win an ACC game at home in their careers. No one on the Duke roster has tasted an in-conference victory, and for it to come on the home finale would make it sweet. Lets see how the teams match-up.
When Duke has the ball:
Duke will look to once again establish a power running game, spearheaded by RB Chris Douglas and the Blue Devil offensive line. The QB situation is a bit unsettled right now. For the past two games, Duke has been using a two-quarterback platoon of Adam Smith and Chris Dapolito, each running different types of plays. Mike Schneider, the starter for most of the season, is expected back for this game, so it will be interesting to see who head coach Ted Roof uses as his primary option. Whoever is in the game will face a stiff challenge from Georgia Tech. Tech boasts one of the best linebacking corps in the conference, anchored by 4-year starter Daryl Smith and the ACC's leading tackler Keyaron Fox. The Jacket defense can control a game by shutting down the run and forcing a team to become one-dimensional. That being said, Duke must throw the ball more to keep the Jacket defenders from stacking the line. The run-pass ratio for the Devils this past week was almost 2 to 1. This number must be 3 to 2 or lower, to keep the GT defense honest. If Tech is allowed to load up against the run, the Devil offense will sputter.
When Georgia Tech has the ball:
The Tech attack is led by freshman QB Reggie Ball. Ball is a conservative thrower, but when he's in the mood to push it a little, WR Jonathan Smith becomes a dangerous target. Smith is currently 4th in the ACC in receptions per game and is among the league leaders in yards per catch. Needless to say, he is the Jackets' big-play guy. Tech can also run the ball decently. RB P. J. Daniels is currently the ACC's leading rusher, averaging 85.8 yards per game. He's definitely the workhorse for Tech as he is also leading the conference in rushing attempts. Despite the efforts of Smith, Daniels and Ball, Tech is having a bear of a time scoring points this season. They are 8th in the conference in scoring, averaging 16.2 points per game. Of course, Duke has no room to gloat here, since they are last. Defensively, Duke is coming off of its best effort of the season last week. Tennessee was able to move the ball somewhat against Duke, but the Devil defense held them to a mere 3 field goals in the first 3 quarters. Offensive and special teams contributed to the 2 4th quarter TDs by Tennessee. Duke has played two great sets of skill position athletes the past two weeks. Tech might be almost on this level, but their talent is under-utilized. This game is well set up for the Duke defense to shine. Probably the biggest individual match-up of the game will be Tech's WR Smith against Blue Devil CB Kenny Stanford. While Smith has the gaudier stats, Stanford has gone up against some of the nations better receivers this season and acquitted himself nicely.
Duke keys to the game:
1. Keep Ball in the Pocket – I'm not talking about the football, I'm talking about Tech's elusive QB Reggie Ball. Ball is not a very dangerous pocket passer, but can make a defense pay for not accounting for his scrambling abilities. This dual-threat capability has been a big weakness for the Duke defense in year's past. Ball is the best runner Duke has faced at QB this season, so they must be ready. If not, Ball will eat them up with his feet. If Duke keeps him in the pocket and forces him to win the game throwing the ball, Tech will not score too many points.
2. Open it up – Despite the bevy of formations that Duke has employed in the 2-games sine Roof has taken over, Duke runs the ball up the middle a lot. The mammoth Duke offensive line has flourished with this new offensive attitude, but this week, it isn't going to cut the mustard. Tech is #1 in the league against the run, but can be had through the air. Now that Duke has shown they want to run first, this would be an ideal week to throw lots of play-action into the mix. If Duke opens up the passing game a bit more this week, I think they will be surprised how open some of the receivers are.
3. Convert – Each of the last two games, Duke has had a first and goal situation inside the opponent's two-yard line. Both times, Duke has come up completely empty. In each case, a touchdown would have put the Devils in the lead against a heavily favored opponent. Duke must find a way to put the ball in the end-zone when they get close. They have the horses up front and in the backfield. They need to take it that last yard. Of course, if the Devils try key #2 above on first down, they would probably score easily.
This game will almost certainly be a defensive struggle. Duke's defense has had a rebirth since the takeover of Ted Roof. They are playing with passion and desire. They are also playing smart, and not being over-aggressive. The performance last week against Tennessee was probably the best defensive effort by the Blue Devils since 1999. GT is not nearly as explosive on offense as Tennessee, but they are good enough to pose challenges to the Duke defense. If the same effort is given by the Blue Devils this weekend, Tech will really struggle to score. The key to the Duke fortunes lie with the offense and their ability to convert in the red-zone. Duke is making it there, but their 60% conversion percentage is pathetic at best. Eventually, Duke will score some red-zone points. The offensive line and running game are too good for this to continue.
This week Duke will not make it inside the Tech 20-yard line too often, but will convert 1 or 2 of their opportunities. Tech will get a big play from Jonathan Smith on offense, but P. J. Daniels and Reggie Ball will be well-acquainted with Duke DT Matt Zielenski and MLB Ryan Fowler before the game is over. Ball will cause some problems with his legs, but Duke will make enough plays to keep him in check. In this game field position will be of utmost importance, and Duke has a clear advantage here. The Tech punting unit has really struggled this season, and if they come up short again this game, Duke could score some easy points.
Offensively, Duke will run the ball OK, but not great. Expect about 120 yards for the game. They will convert a big play through the air, probably to WR Khary Sharpe. Duke will open the offense up a bit more and it will be just enough. The seniors will taste their first ACC victory at their home finale.
Duke - 20 Georgia Tech - 16