When Duke has the ball:
Despite being ranked last in the ACC in total offense, Duke is moving the ball much better now than they were earlier in the season.
QB Mike Schneider struggled against FSU last weekend, but still made enough plays to keep the game interesting into the 4th quarter. He will face another formidable challenge this weekend. The Clemson secondary is among the conferences best. CB Justin Miller is an outstanding cover-man who can lock down a receiver in single coverage. This allows Clemson to roll their safety help to the other side, as well as allowing the front 7 the freedom to blitz. Schneider will have to watch out for LB Leroy Hill, who leads the ACC in sacks and tackles for loss.
Still, all hope is not lost for Duke. Clemson is 8th in the conference in total defense, giving up 352 yards per game. After seeing the vaunted FSU defense last week, Duke will be breathing a sigh of relief when they see Clemson this week. The Tigers are capable, but not nearly in the same class as FSU. Duke will be able to run the ball this weekend against a defense giving up 156.1 yards per game on the ground. Tight ends Ben Patrick and Andy Roland could be effective targets when matched up against Clemson linebackers or safeties.
When Clemson has the ball:
Clemson uses a spread attack, using 3 and 4 wide receiver sets most of the time. QB Charlie Whitehurst takes most of the snaps from the shotgun. Whitehurst, the preseason ACC player of the Year, has been a disappointment this season, throwing 14 interceptions. This match-up seems to be favorable for the Duke secondary, who is tied for the league lead in interceptions. Still, the Tigers can be very effective throwing the ball. Duke will need to make sure to cover the ACC's leading receiver, Airese Curry.
Clemson is not one-dimension as they run the ball out of the spread as well. Reggie Merriweather has emerged as the primary ball carrier for the Tigers. He had a great game last week against Miami, rushing for 114 yards and 3 touchdowns. He's a powerful back that Duke will need to wrap up. The key for the Devils this game will be to make tackles in space. With the spread formation, there will be some situations where there will be some one-on-one tackles that need to be made. If Duke can make these plays, they will be just fine.
Matchup to Watch: RB Cedric Dargan vs. Clemson run defense. Duke running back Cedric Dargan has only played in 5 games this season, but has 3 100-yard performances to his credit. After going up against the great FSU run defense last week, Duke will have an opportunity to gain yards on the ground against Clemson. The Tigers are giving up 90 yards per game more than FSU.
For Duke to be successful this weekend, they must keep the Clemson offense on the sidelines. Running the ball is the easiest way to accomplish this task, and Dargan and the Duke offensive line are out to prove they are better than they showed last week.
Duke keys to the game:
Turnover battle: Duke is tied for the league lead in takeaways, while Clemson is near the bottom of the league in said category. Duke must be at least plus-2 in the turnover column to win this game. The Devils can't afford to give Clemson easy points by way of turnovers.
Red-zone offense: This has been the bane of the Duke offense all season long. The Devils are dead last in the ACC in red-zone offense, scoring points on only 62% of the time. The Devils are going to have to convert these opportunities to touchdowns. In each of the last two games, Duke has turned the ball over inside the opponent's 5-yard line. The Devils will have a very difficult time winning, if they keep this streak of futility alive.
Trap Game? : Clemson is coming off of an emotion overtime win against Miami. With hated in state rival South Carolina coming up next week; this game against Duke has all the makings of a "trap" game for Clemson. It is tough to keep the intensity level up against a 1-8 team with your archrival coming to town the following week. Duke has been only 1-2 plays away from winning a few games this year. If Clemson comes into this game flat, Duke is capable of beating them.
On paper, Clemson should win this game by about 14 points. They have a slightly better offense, a better defense and one of the best special teams players around in Justin Miller. They also are riding a 4-game winning streak, and are coming off a victory against a big-time Miami program.
Despite all that, I think Clemson could be in for a big surprise this weekend. Duke hung right in with conference heavyweights FSU and Virginia into the 4th quarter. They had Wake Forest on the ropes all afternoon before giving that game away. Duke is a scrappy bunch that is hungry for victory, and the preponderance of evidence suggests that Clemson will be looking past this game.
Clemson will have success moving the football between the 20s, but they will have trouble scoring touchdowns. The Duke red-zone defense has been very good in the second half of the season, and teams that run spread offenses usually have trouble when the field shrinks in the red-zone. The Tigers will not be able to overpower Duke in the trenches, a problem area for the Devils especially on the defensive line.
This game will come down to turnovers and Duke's ability to run the ball. Duke will score first and build a lead. Whitehurst will lead a Clemson comeback, but this week, Duke will score enough points to win.
Duke – 28
Clemson - 27