Previewing Duke vs. Miami

The Duke Blue Devils will play their second of four consecutive home games this weekend against the Miami Hurricanes. Normally, the big story line surrounding Duke Football games is whether or not the Devils will upset their upcoming opponent.

This week, however, the national spotlight is square on the Hurricanes in light of their in-game brawl with Florida International last weekend. Miami has suspended 13 of their players for the weekend's contest. Of those 13 players, 12 are on the two-deep chart including 4 starters, most notably DB Reggie Meriweather. This begs the question; can the Devils pull the upset against the depleted Hurricane squad? Let's take a look at the matchups.

When Duke has the ball:
The Devils are coming off a season-high 24 points scored against Florida State last week. QB Thaddeus Lewis threw for over 250 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions against an opportunistic FSU defense. WR Eron Riley had his best game of 2006, catching 7 balls for over 100 yards. Riley, along with fellow receivers Jomar Wright, Raphael Chestnut, and QB/WR Marcus Jones give the Devils their most impressive array of pass-catchers in quite some time. Despite their success in the air, Duke was quite underwhelming running the football, gaining only 48 total yards on the ground. Having a credible ground game would take the pressure off of the freshman signal caller and make the offense much more difficult to defend. Expect RBs Justin Boyle and Re'Quan Boyette along with Devilback Ronnie Drummer to get most of the touches. Each player has had his moments in 2006, but none has established himself as the main ball carrier.

Defensively, Miami has proven to be quite stingy especially against the run. Opponents are averaging a paltry 57.3 yards per game running the ball. Overall, the Canes are #2 in the ACC in total defense (237 yards per game) and #1 in scoring defense (12.2 points per game. All is not as it seems, however, as Miami will be missing several key components. All-ACC candidate LB Jon Beason will miss the game due to a knee injury. The fight suspensions will take their biggest toll on the secondary. Along with Meriweather the Canes will be without CBs Randy Phillips, Bruce Johnson and Ryan Hill. Also suspended is reserve LB James Bryant. If the Devils are to compete in this contest, they must take full advantage of the depleted depth in the back seven. Miami might have to play some guys who have not seen much game action. They play for the Hurricanes, so they are going to be good athletes. Still, inexperience is a major cause of mental mistakes and missed assignments. Hopefully for the Devils, there are plenty of both on Saturday.

When Miami has the ball:
The Hurricanes will bring the ACC's 5th rated offense into Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday. They are led by talented yet erratic sophomore Kyle Wright. While completing over 60% of his passes, Wright has only 5 TD passes through 6 games and has shown to get rattled when the heat is on. The Miami can run the ball effectively, averaging 144 yards per contest, so their attack is balanced. The overall numbers are deceiving, however, as they had offensive explosions against I-AA and low 1-A teams, but have really struggled against stiffer competition. The fight suspensions will also have an impact here as 3 offensive linemen, a tight end, and a running back will not play this Saturday.

The Duke defense has softened over the past few games for two reasons. One, the talent level of their opponents is high. Two, the best Blue Devil run stopper, DT Eli Nichols, has been sidelined by injury. Duke will be without the services of Nichols for at least one more week, so DLs Clifford Respress and Ayanga Okpokowuruk must pick up the slack. Regardless of Nichols' absence, the defensive battle will be won or lost in the passing game. Duke has been running a variety of blitzing schemes to get quick pressure on the quarterback. When they are successful, their opponents have trouble moving the ball. Last week, however, the FSU blockers did a great job of giving their QB time to throw, and he was able to pick the pass coverage apart. Miami will most likely max protect to counter Duke's blitzing and only send two or three players out in pass routes. The bad news for Duke is that Miami has great athletes at wider receiver and one of the nation's best tight ends in Greg Olson. The good news is that Olson will be a game time decision due to the effects of a concussion. Duke must find a way to get better coverage on the outside while still maintaining a pass rush on Wright. If Miami is as successful protecting their QB as FSU was last week, Duke will be very hard pressed to stop them.

Matchup to watch:
Duke offensive line vs. the Miami defensive line

One of the few positions on the Miami team that was not affected by the brawl was the defensive line. With superior athletes like DT Baraka Atkins, the Duke front will have their hands full this weekend. Last week against FSU, the line was not able to open many holes for running the ball; however, did a credible job in pass protection. If Duke is to have a chance this weekend, the line must do a better job in run blocking. A team that cannot run the ball a little is going to have a long day against the Miami defense.

Three Keys to a Duke victory:
Take advantage of the suspensions: The Duke coaches must identify all of the suspended players and find ways to expose their replacements. The positions hardest hit seem to be defensive back and offensive line. Duke will probably try and air it out to test the replacements in the secondary. On defense, Duke will surely employ blitz packages to try and confuse the Miami offensive line. Watch the punting game of both teams. The Canes are without their starting punter and will be relying on an untested walk-on to handle the duties. They will also be without their top punt returner and will need to find a capable replacement there as well.

No easy points: The Duke offense has to take better care of the ball. The Devils have already lost 10 fumbles on the season, many of which have occurred deep in Duke territory. To add insult to injury, Duke has given up a defensive or special teams score in 4 consecutive football games. A team struggling for wins like Duke cannot afford these sorts of mistakes and expect to win games. Taking care of the football and making Miami earn every point will improve the Devils chances this weekend.

Do not get distracted: Despite the game not being on TV, there will undoubtedly be extra media attention surrounding the game because of Miami's suspensions. The Duke players must simply concentrate on Duke and not worry about what is happening in the other locker room. They will take the field on Saturday and they will face a talented, athletic opponent. That is all that should matter to the players. Let the coaches worry about scheming to take advantage of the suspensions.

What will happen?
Despite having a depleted roster, Miami will definitely be the favorite this Saturday. Duke simply does not have the same caliber of athlete on their roster as the Hurricanes, with a few notable exceptions. Still, the Devils have a much better chance to beat Miami now than they did one week ago. The Canes will be without core players Reggie Meriweather and Jon Beason on defense. With their best offensive player, TE Greg Olsen a game-time decision, the Canes will be hard pressed to replace their production. Even with those players, Miami has not been overly impressive this season, losing to their only two quality opponents on their schedule to date, and nearly being upset by Houston a few weeks back. If Duke can put forth an effort like the one they gave at Alabama, an upset is possible.

Duke will keep the score close for three quarters. Miami will be able to score a few touchdowns in the passing game as Duke will be burned trying to blitz Wright. The Devils will keep pace as the passing game will find a rhythm. Duke will, however, struggle to run the ball once again, forcing the offense to become one-dimensional. A one-dimension offense will not get the job done, even against a depleted Hurricane squad. Miami will force a critical turnover in the second half and gradually pull away.

Predicted Final Score:

Miami – 34
Duke - 17

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