Previewing Duke vs. Alabama

Duke will step outside the ACC this week and travel down to Tuscaloosa to take on the 3-2 Alabama Crimson Tide. Both teams will be coming off disappointing losses; however, the situation is much direr for the Blue Devils.

Four games into the season, Duke has been shut out three times, and only scored 13 points in the fourth. Now facing Alabama, Duke will be playing one of the best defenses they will see all season. Do the Devils have what it takes to reverse their fortunes this weekend keep this game close? Let's take a look at the matchups.

When Duke has the ball:
Cover your eyes if you are a Blue Devil fan. As noted before, the Duke offense has been one of the worst in recent memory. Isolating a singular cause for the Devils struggles would not be fair, as many areas are just not performing well. Most of the on-field difficulties are coming from a very inexperienced offensive line. The unit is unable to open any holes for the running game. When the Devils pass, the quarterback is spending much of his time avoiding the rush. Any improvement of the offense will be dependent on this unit. If they perform, Duke can move the ball. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis started the year pretty well against softer defenses, but struggled mightily against Virginia. Lewis needs to take better care of the ball, as he lost two fumbles after sacks, and also botched three QB/Center exchanges. With a freshman QB, you expect mistakes in reads and interceptions. Handling the ball, however, should not be a problem.

If would help the young QB if Duke could run the ball. This has proven to be quite a monumental task. This week, the Devils will be hard pressed to get anything going on the ground. Statistically, the Tide has not been a great defensive team this year. They are giving up a shade over 100 yards per game on the ground and their pass defense has been average. Still the Duke offense has a way of making average defense look very good. Alabama will resemble Virginia Tech in athleticism, speed, and play-making ability. If Duke is to have a chance to move the ball, they must find a way to block the Alabama front and force their back seven to cover and tackle in space.

When Alabama has the ball:
When one usually thinks of Alabama football, they usually think power running and smash-mouth football. This year's Crimson Tide squad is actually struggling to run the ball. The leading rusher, Kenneth Darby, has only 309 yards through 5 games and is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry. The Tide have been much more successful though the air. In his first year as the starting QB, John Parker Wilson has given the Tide offense life. He currently holds a 140 passer rating and is averaging over 200 yards per game in the air. Wilson is not afraid to leave the pocket either as evidenced by his 37 carries on the season. When he stays in the pocket, he likes to get the ball to his two main targets, Keith Brown and DJ Hall. Both are going to be tough matchups for the Duke.

For the Devils, this appears to be a game where if they play well, they will be able to hold the Alabama offense in check. The Tide is struggling to run the ball, and Duke is 26th in the country against the run. Where Duke can be exploited, however is in the passing game. The Devils were able to pressure the Virginia QB and recorded 5 sacks. The Alabama offensive line, however, is most likely better than the one they faced last week. The defensive front will not be pushed around; however, the better lines are able to diagnose blitzes better in the passing game. Last week, Duke was able to use safeties and linebackers to confuse the Virginia line and running backs. Alabama should be more capable of picking up the Duke blitz packages. This will leave the secondary vulnerable to the Alabama passing game. If Duke can get to John Parker Wilson, they might be able to force some bad throws and cause a few turnovers.

Three Keys to the game: Turnovers: Duke gave the ball away five times last week, and that does not include and blocked punt nor does it include a fumbled snap on 4th and short which, in essence, was another turnover. All in all, Virginia started 6 drives inside Duke territory last week and scored a defensive touchdown to boot. Despite giving up 37 points, the defense did not play poorly. The offensive turnovers put them in impossible situations. Against a mediocre UVA team, that was disastrous. Against a better Alabama team, it would be unwatchable.

Fundamentals: The most agonizing part of last weeks' loss was Duke's lack of execution in the most basic parts of the game. Duke has three fumbles during the QB/Center exchange and a 4th when the center snapped the ball too early while Lewis was in the shotgun. On the blocked punt, the UVA blocker came up the middle untouched which is one of the basic fundamental rules of special teams blocking schemes. For Duke to win football games against anyone, they must execute the parts of the game that Pop Warner kids do all of the time with little trouble.

Big plays: Since Duke has had such a difficult time sustaining drives this season, they must try and hit some big plays. Sure they mostly have a low percentage of success, however, since Duke's chances of winning this game are probably lower, why not try? The Devils have some game breaking speed and some receivers that can go up and get jump balls. Try a few more of the long passes, reverses and the like to see if some easy points can be had.

Final Analysis:
There is one overriding question heading into this game: Can Duke score? So far this season, they've played 16 quarters of football and have 13 points. Alabama will be looking to extend Duke's dubious streak for another four quarters. The Tide started the season 3-0 but has dropped their initial two SEC contest and should be looking at Duke as an easy win to get them back on track. For the Devils, they have to do something to get their offense untracked. The defense has played well enough to win a few games this season, but they are not getting any support from the other side of the ball. Alabama is rated 29th in the country in total defense, giving up 280 yards per game. The numbers however are a bit misleading. The Tide is giving up 5.31 yards per play, which is half a yard to a yard more than the teams around them in the standings. To put it in perspective, Duke is a surprising 40th in total defense which is 11 spots worse than Alabama, but Duke is only giving up 4.99 yards per play. Such a small margin does not seem significant, but over the course of a game it is telling of how well a defense is stopping the opponent.

When all of the numbers are crunched, however, the prospects for a Duke victory look quite bleak. Alabama has more talent on both sides of the ball and has a huge advantage in the trenches when Duke has the ball. I think the Devils will get off their scoring snide, but the Tide will control the action throughout the game. The Duke defense will play valiantly up front, but will once again be put in really bad field position by the offenses' lack of execution. Duke will remain within shouting distance through halftime, but the Tide will roll in the second half.

Final Score:

Alabama – 38
Duke -10

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