When Duke has the ball:
Duke will try and continue its recent success running the ball against the undersized Navy front. Over the last 4 games, Duke has average 150.5 yards per game rushing. When compared to the first four games (37.5 YPG), it is apparent that the Blue Devil offensive line is doing a much better job opening holes for the backs. Coming off a 4 TD performance, RB Justin Boyle will look to use his size and strength to overpower the Navy defense. Devilback Ronnie Drummer and TB Re'Quan Boyette will also share the ball carrying load. When Duke is forced to throw, they must get a better performance out of QB Thad Lewis. His inconsistency for game to game highlight the growing pains of starting a true freshman under center. He must play better than his 106-yard outing of last week if Duke is to score enough points to win.
The good news for Duke is that the Navy defense is nothing to write home about. The Middies are 85th in the country in total defense, giving up 363.5 yards per game. They aren't too bad against the run (134.8 YPG), but are allowing opposing QBs to pick them apart (#90 nationally in pass efficiency defense). The Middies only have 4 interceptions on the season, which is good news for Duke's Lewis, who has struggled with this at times. Their poor performance against the pass and lack of interceptions can also be traced to a less than stellar pass rush. The bottom line is Duke should be able to score enough points to win against this defense.
When Navy has the ball:
This might sound like a broken record from last season's preview, but Navy will try and foil the Duke defense with its option-based attack. They run a form of the "flexbone" in which they use slotbacks as ball carriers rather than the traditional wishbone 3-back set. As a result, the Middies are ranked 2nd nationally in rushing offense, averaging 311 yards per game. Conversely, they are dead last in division 1-A in passing offense averaging only 52 YPG through the air. Still, they are effective at moving the ball, controlling the clock and keeping games close. The big positive for this sort of offense is that Navy forces teams to adjust their defensive strategy to combat their unconventional style. The big negative of this offense is that if the Middies fall behind, it is much tougher to catch up.
Last week, the Duke defense played what was easily the worst game of their 2006 season. Vanderbilt was able to run for over 200 yards, the bulk of which came on QB scrambles from the shotgun. This week, Duke will face a different sort of animal. Navy will run multiple types of option runs at them, and it is imperative that the Duke defenders follow their assignments on every play and not try to do too much. The option thrives when defenders are caught out of position. The good news for Duke is the defense seems to match up very well against the option. Other than Vanderbilt and one FSU scamper, the Devils have really done a good job of stopping the run this season. The Duke defensive line has very good bulk and should be able to bottle up the dive portion of the option. CBs John Talley and Deonto McCormick have struggled in coverage, but both players have been good at outside run support. Adrian Aye-Darko is quietly developing into a very reliable strong safety. All in all, it will be surprising if Navy is able to reach their season average in rushing yardage. Of course, committing people to the run opens up the defense to be burned over the top. It is imperative for the Duke secondary to diagnose the pass properly and not get caught jumping up in run support on play-action fakes.
Matchup to watch:
Duke defensive line vs. Navy Offensive Line.
The success of an option-based attack is predicated on the offensive line and other offensive players certain not to be carrying the ball leaving certain defenders unblocked. This allows the QB to make the appropriate reads and choose the right "option" based on what the defense does. The key to this scheme, however, is making sure the other defenders are kept out of the play. The worst enemy to a ground game is defensive line penetration. With the return to health of DT Eli Nichols, the Duke DL becomes quite the formidable blocking task for the undersized Navy OL. They will no doubt use cut blocking from a variety of angles to try and slow down the Duke line. If Duke is able to handle these blocks and get penetration in the backfield, the Navy offense will sputter. If Navy is able to effective block the Duke down linemen, their offense will flourish.
3 keys to the game:
Score early: Duke has been quite the slow starting team in 2006. So far this season, the Devils have been outscored 79-3 in the first quarter. Needless to say, they have often found themselves down early. Against a clock-controlling offense like Navy, falling behind early is the worst thing that can happen. Duke must be able to put points on the board early to either get ahead or at worst keep up with Navy. If the Devils can get a lead and force Navy to play from behind, they will have the advantage.
Know your roles: Option-based offenses are designed to take advantage of defenders that try and guess where the ball rather than executing their assignments. While Vanderbilt ran a shotgun-based offense, they used draws and cutbacks to produce the same result. Duke did not play disciplined football last week and the Commodores scored 45 points. All defenders must know and execute their assignments. If not, Navy will take advantage with big plays and, in the worst case, easy touchdowns.
Four quarters: Duke has played several really good halves of football this season, but has not put together 4 quarters of solid football. If they had, they would not own the nation's longest current losing streak. The Devils must maintain their intensity and focus for an entire game; otherwise the scrappy Midshipmen will extend that streak for at least one more week.
This is certainly a game Duke can win. The Devils have better talent across the board and with the recent surge in offensive production, should be able to score enough points to win the game. Navy might be out-talented and out-sized. But one thing they will bring every game is maximum effort and intensity. Duke has been all over the map this season with their effort level. Sometimes they come out and fight tooth and nail (Miami, Alabama, Wake), and other times they sleepwalk through games (Richmond, VT, UVA). Duke needs the former to show up to give them the best (any) chance at victory.
As for what will happen, the Navy offense will find the going tough early on. Duke's front should be able to control the line of scrimmage and the Middies will need to run some wrinkles in their offense to keep Duke off-balance. Navy will probably end the game with about 200 yards total on the ground. The two keys here are yards per carry and passing yardage. If the Duke defense can hold Navy to less than 4.5 yards per rushing attempt, Navy will not be able to move the ball consistently. That means to score, they will need easy points. The Middies have had good fortune beating Duke deep at least once in the last few contests. Duke must stop the passes over the top; otherwise, the Middies will control the clock and force Duke to play catch-up. Offensively, Duke will continue to run the ball successfully as they have in the last four games. Thad Lewis will not be asked to do too much throwing the ball, but when he does, expect Duke to move the pocket to give him time to throw. Because of Navy's lack of elite talent, the Duke OL should be able to keep the pass rush off of Lewis and the receivers will be able to find holes in the defense. It will be a very fast game, and probably will not last three hours. In the end Duke will be able to keep pace with Navy early and will make one more play than the Midshipmen. The Devils will taste victory for the first time in 2006.