Previewing Duke vs. Vanderbilt

The Duke Blue Devils will play their third of four consecutive home games this weekend against the Vanderbilt Commodores. After a last second loss to ACC powerhouse Miami, Duke will be looking to notch their first victory of the season against a less talented opponent.

Of course, while their overall talent level is not on par with Miami, Vanderbilt has the ability to play good football. Their 24-22 victory over Georgia on the road proves this. Can the winless Blue Devils get their first victory of the season against a team with such a victory under their belt? Let's take a look at the matchups.

When Duke has the ball:
Despite only scoring 15 points last week, Duke had one of their best offensive performances of the 2006 season. The Devils gained almost 400 yards of offense against the nations' #3 overall defense. Even more promising was that the offensive output was a well-rounded effort. Duke gained 96 yards on the ground when Miami was only giving up 53 yards a contest. The Devils were also able to take advantage of the depleting Hurricane secondary, throwing for 284 yards. QB Thad Lewis struggled early in the game, but really turned it on in the second half, driving the Devils up and down the field against the vaunted Miami defense. Wide receiver Jomar Wright was the star of the offense with 10 catches for 176 yards. Wright has had some problems with his hands and actually lost a fumble early. He turned it around later in the game, recording 9 of his 10 catches after halftime. The offensive line seems to have started to gel in the last few contests. Against aggressive, blitzing defenses of FSU and Miami, the line has only given up a total of 4 sacks.

If Duke is to continue its relative good fortune on offense, they must contend with a decent Commodore defense. They are currently ranked 48th in the country in total defense, giving up slightly more than 300 yards per game. Duke should be able to get the running game going Saturday as Vandy is giving up over 150 yards per game on the ground. However, the Commodores tighten up when they have to, as they are allowing only 19.3 points per contest. Duke must be able to control the ball and avoid turnovers to win Saturday's contest.

When Vanderbilt has the ball:
The Commodores will line up with athletic, yet erratic, Chris Nickson under center. He is currently 10th in the SEC in passing efficiency. Despite his throwing troubles, Nickson can do damage with his feet having rushed for 414 yards so far on the season. His favorite receiving target is the dynamic Sophomore Earl Bennett. Bennett is one of the SEC's best young players and he's currently second in the conference in receptions per game. He will certainly pose a difficult matchup for Duke CBs John Talley and Deonto McCormick. When the Commodores run the ball, they will rely on Nickson and RB Caseen Jackson-Garriso. Overall, Vandy is 4th in the SEC running the ball, averaging 148 yards per game on the ground.

If Vanderbilt is to have sustained success on offense, they must find a way to run the ball against the stout Duke run defense. After holding Miami to 36 yards rushing on 20 carries, the Devils now rank 28th in the nation in rush defense. If starting DT Eli Nichols is able to return to action after a few weeks out with injury, Vandy will be hard pressed to do much better than other Duke opponents running the ball. Despite Duke's success defending the run, they have not done as well against the pass. Duke is barely in the top-100 nationally in pass efficiency defense. This is due to the blitzing Duke has done, which has left the corners out on an island. The Devils are getting pressure on the QB, but they are also giving up plenty of long gainers. CB John Talley has intercepted passes in 4 straight games and with one more pick will become Duke's all time leader. He already holds the ACC record for interception return yardage. If Nickson is careless with his throws, Talley and company can make the Vandy offense pay.

Matchup(s) to watch:
Duke defensive backs vs. the Vanderbilt wide receivers.

The matchup of the day will probably be Earl Bennett versus John Talley. But the Commodores will probably move Bennett around to give him more favorable matchups. If the Vanderbilt receivers are able to get off the line and get open consistently, Nickson will be able to expose the Duke pass coverage for big gains.

Three Keys to a Duke victory:
Turnovers: Against Miami, the Devils were -3 in turnover differential and that probably cost them the game. If Duke is to score enough points to win Saturday, they must take better care of the ball. Drive-killing interceptions and fumbles have been the bane of the Duke offense in 2006. Vanderbilt has forced 19 turnovers in their 7 games this season, so they are capable of making the Devils pay for being careless.

Pressure: Duke did a good job getting pressure on Miami QB Kyle Wright, especially in the second-half of last week's game. If Duke can pressure Chris Nickson consistently, he will make mistakes in the passing game. If Nickson is allowed time to read the defense, he has the ability to make the big play.

Red-zone offense: The Duke offense had done a much better job the past 3 games; however, they are still struggling a bit in the red-zone. This is partially due to the struggles of kicker Joe Surgan. Still, the offense must put the ball in the end zone when they have a chance. Duke's abysmal 31% red-zone efficiency is the main reason why they are winless.

What will happen?
The Vanderbilt offense will struggle to move the ball early against the Devil defense. The running game will be bottled up and Duke's pass rush will not give Nickson time to find his open receivers. The Duke offense will struggle out of the gate and this will be a punting contest early. As the offenses get used to what the defenses are doing, both teams will start to have more success moving the ball. The key to the game will be whether or not Duke continues to turn the ball over in key situations. If Duke is -2 or worse in turnover differential, Vandy will win. If Duke can take care of the ball, the Devils will come out on top. Thad Lewis will finally catch a few breaks in the passing game, and RBs Justin Boyle and Re'Quan Boyette will control the ball on the ground. It will be a close game throughout, but this week, Duke will make the one extra play it was unable to make a week ago. The Devils will taste victory for the first time (and not the last) in 2006.

Final Score:

Duke – 24
Vanderbilt - 20


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