When Duke has the ball:
The Devils will be looking to continue last week's success of running the football. Against the #15 defense in the country, the Devils were able to gain nearly 200 yards on the ground. A three-headed backfield by committee has emerged for Duke with Justin Boyle, Re'Quan Boyette and Ronnie Drummer sharing carries. Boyle is the starter and provides Duke with a physical presence in the backfield. He is the best blocker in pass protection of the three, and also is nearly unstoppable in short yardage. He runs with incredible power and leverage and almost never goes down on first contact. Boyette provide and speedier option for the Devils. Last week against FSU, the true freshman recorded the first 100-yard game of his young career, gaining 123 yards on only 10 carries. When Duke needs a big play, however, look for the ball in the hands of Ronnie Drummer. With only 5 touches last week, Drummer gained an absurd 163 yards of total offense, including two plays of over 50-yards (one rush and one kickoff return).
Still, the Duke offense needs to get a lift from the passing game. The Devils are routinely recording less than 100 yards through the air, and this imbalance is making them easy to defend. Quarterback Zack Asack started his career off quickly, playing well against VMI in his first collegiate action, but has tailed off dramatically in recent weeks. He is elusive and can really run for a quarterback, but he is not delivering the ball to his receivers in consistent fashion. Of course, the receiving corps has to do a better job of making catches when the opportunity presents itself. Still, Duke had open receivers behind the FSU secondary on several occasions last week, but the passes were overthrown. To loosen up the defense underneath, the Devils must be able to complete a few of these passes. With the passing game misfiring so badly, will former starting QB Mike Schneider see action this weekend?
The Wake defense played an opportunistic game against NC State last weekend, returning two interceptions for touchdowns. Still, the Deacs are dead last in the ACC in total defense, allowing 393 yards per game. The run defense hasn't been too bad, allowing 123 yards per game. However, looking at the tackle statistics shows a disturbing trend. The leading tackler on the team is LB Jon Abbate. The next three leading tacklers, however, are all defensive backs. This usually indicates the defensive line is not doing a good job of holding the line against the opponents running game, requiring the safeties to provide extra support in defending the run. This leaves Wake Forest vulnerable to play-action. The Deacs are last in the conference in pass defense, allowing 263 yards per game through the air. Their conference-low sack total also indicates they struggle to get pressure on the opponents' QB. Now they must deal with the absence of starting DE Jeremy Thompson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week. The Wake defense is ripe to be exploited this week, provided Duke doesn't turn the ball over. Wake is second in the conference in interceptions.
When Wake Forest has the ball:
At the beginning of the season, The Deacs seem to have settled on QB Ben Mauck to lead their offense. He provided more of a passing threat than his predecessor Cory Randolph. The plans changed; however, as Mauck regressed throughout the season, as he struggled throwing the ball. Eventually, the Deacs turned back to Randolph, who provided stability for the offense. Now, Randolph is questionable for the game with a leg injury, so the Deacs might be forced to put Mauck back into the drivers' seat. Whoever is behind center, they will have a workhorse behind them in RB Chris Barclay. If he matches his season average rushing on Saturday, Barclay will become Wake Forest's all-time leading rusher. Barclay is a smallish back, but is tough as nails and has the speed to score from long distance. With Barclay leading the charge, the Deacs are the conference's 2nd leading ground attack, averaging 190 yards per game. When Wake goes to the pass, their primary target is Nate Morton. He leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. The Deacs do have other options, but Morton and Barclay will be the primary keys for the Duke defense.
The big question for Wake Forest is who will block? The Deacs are struggling mightily with injuries up front and might have to play some fresh faces this weekend. This bodes well for the Duke defense, who has been struggling of late. Duke's starting front-four should have the advantage in taking on the Wake line. Still, the Devils are not without health problems of their own. Against FSU, Duke had 4 defensive starters leave the game at one point or another with injuries. OLB Patrick Bailey is done for the season with an ankle injury. FS Chris Davis is questionable for this week with a foot injury. OLB Brendan Dewan and SS Brian Greene were banged up last week, but should be fine for this Saturday. The silver lining of the injury cloud is Duke has some backups who can fill in with little dropoff. MLB Codey Lowe, who started the first two games of the season will likely return to the middle, and current starter Mike Brown will slide to the outside to replace Bailey. Lowe and Brown are both good tacklers, which will be an asset against a Wake team that loves to run the ball.
Advantage: Wake Forest
The Deacons have potential all-ACC punter in Ryan Plackemeier, who is averaging an unbelievable 46.4 yards per punt. Wake also leads the conference in net punting, which is a big bonus in the field position game. Duke had been playing shoddy special teams for most of the season, but put it all together last week and outplayed Florida State in that phase of the game. Kickoff returner Ronnie Drummer is one of the most dangerous players in the conference with the ball in his hands. The Duke kick coverage was outstanding last week, as they held FSU to a 10 yard per return average. Both teams have good freshmen place kickers with strong legs. The key here, which team can make the most happen with their special teams. With Drummer, Duke has a chance to score every time he touches the ball.
Duke Keys to the Game (Halloween edition):
Ghosts – Much like previous Duke opponent Navy, Wake uses lots of misdirection in their offense. This allows the Deacs to occupy a defender by a runner giving the illusion that he has the ball, thereby slowing flow to the real ball carrier. Duke must recognize who has the ball and not chase ghosts. Otherwise, Wake will break some long ones.
Trick or Treat – The Devils played hard in their last contest, but that cannot be said for some of the other contests. At times, Duke comes out of the locker room flat, especially in the second half. The fans don't know what to expect. The coaching staff need to have the guys ready to go both at the start of the game, and after halftime. Duke must come out "treat" both times, rather than "trick".
Haunted House – Duke must not get down when something goes wrong. Yes, the program has had its share of bad luck recently, almost like Wallace Wade stadium is haunted. Wake is one of the nations' best at taking advantage of mistakes. The Devils must fight through the bad breaks and not let them carry over into subsequent plays. Otherwise, The Deacons will make Duke pay for their sins.
Matchup to Watch: Wake Forest RT Steve Vallos vs. Duke DE Eli Nichols
The Wake running game the lifeblood of their offense. If the Devils can tie up the blockers and allow the linebackers to flow to the ball, the Wake running game will be slowed. If the Wake blockers can get to the second level and disrupt the LB flow, Barclay will have a field day. Vallos is Wake's best lineman, but will face a test Saturday from Nichols. Though he doesn't get a lot of press, Nichols is an excellent run defender, often times tying up multiple blockers and give the LB on his side a free run at the ball carrier. Nichols also leads Duke in sacks and tackles for loss.
Despite Wake's victory against a tough NC State team last week, this is an eminently winnable game for Duke. The Wake defensive line is much less talented than what Duke has been facing recently, and the OL should be able to get a decent push in the running game. The key to this contest for Duke is getting the passing game on track. The Devils have to find a way to force the Wake linebackers and safeties off the line of scrimmage and make them respect the pass. If not, Wake will stack the line and dare Duke to throw the ball over their heads.
If last week is any indication, however, the Duke offense is starting to gain a little stability. If Duke can run for almost 200 yards against FSU, they should be able to do much of the same this weekend against a much weaker Wake defense. Justin Boyle will be a huge factor in this game. With the Duke offensive line able to get a push, Boyle will be able to churn out yardage against the Deacs. Duke came very close to hitting a few big passes last week. Will they finally break through a complete a few long ones? I think they will, and Duke will get their first ACC victory of 2005.
Wake Forest 27