When Duke Has the Ball:
Prospects are looking much better on this side of the ball than a season ago. In 2006, duke had no established quarterback, and an offensive line with more questions than an episode of Jeopardy. Fast forward to 2007 and the picture looks starkly different. Despite going 0-12 last season, the Devils have apparently found their QB of the next few seasons in Thaddeus Lewis. He is one of the true up-and-coming signal callers of the ACC. He took quite a few lumps early in the season, but, really came on late in the year to throw for the fourth most passing yards by any freshman, and most by a true freshman, in conference history. He did throw quite a few interceptions a season ago, but over half of those were desperation heaves thrown under duress by an 18-year old in his first season of college action. With a full off-season of learning and practice, Lewis is poised to have a stellar sophomore campaign. Even better news for Duke is for the first time in many years, Duke is stocked with ACC-caliber talent at the skill positions. Wide receivers Jomar Wright, Eron Riley and Raphael Chestnut form one of the conference's best pass catching trios. The Devils also have several running backs at their disposal to give defenses different looks throughout the game. Justin Boyle provides Duke with a power runner than excels in short yardage. ReQuan Boyette gives the Devils more of an elusive open-field runner, and when pure speed in needed, Ronnie Drummer can hit the home run.
All of Duke's QB and skill player talent will go for naught, however, if the offensive line does not open holes and provide pass protection. The good news for the Devils is the entire two-deep on the offense line returns from a season ago, and 4-5 new freshman faces have been added to bolster depth. Duke will likely be without starting right tackle Fred Roland this weekend, but the rest of the unit appears ready to continue their upward trend of improvement from a season ago. In the first 1/3 of the 2006 season, the line could not block anyone, as evidenced by the 24 sacks and 38 YPG rushing at that point. Over the last 8 games, however, they were able to open holes and give Lewis much more time to throw the ball. Needless to say, the offensive production dramatically improved the last 2/3 of the season. Potential all-ACC candidate LT Cameron Goldberg and center Matt Rumsey are the leaders of this unit.
The Connecticut defense has some good players, but as a overall unit will be one of the weakest Duke will see in 2007. They finished near the bottom of the Big East last season in rush defense and were last in scoring defense. Senior LB Danny Lansanah would start for most ACC teams. He led the Huskies last season in tackles and tied for the lead in interceptions. The Huskies had to replace both starting defensive tackles from a season ago, so Lansanah will need the new guys to step up and take on blockers so he can pursue to the ball unimpeded. He is joined in the LB corps by fellow senior Ryan Henigan. The Huskes also have a few good players at defensive end with junior Cody Brown and sophomore Lindsey Whitten. Both players are expected to become good pass rushing threats in 2007. The emergence of these two allowed the UConn coaches to move their best defensive lineman, Dan Davis inside to tackle. The move to a smaller, quicker line should improve the pass rush, but the DL overall is undersized and can be manhandled. When Duke does throw the ball, they need to be wary of budding star CB Darius Brown. He tied for the team lead in interceptions and will vie for all-conference honors this fall. The Huskies have two big weaknesses on defense: defensive tackle and both safety positions. They will have some talented players lining up at these positions Saturday, but the Duke offense should be able to take advantage of these areas and score points.
When Connecticut Has the Ball:
The Huskies have one of the best running backs Duke will face this season in sophomore Donald Brown. He shredded the Big East in his freshman campaign, averaging 134 yards per game in conference, including 199 against Rutgers. The Huskies were quite the one-dimensional team in 2006 as last years' QBs could not generate much throwing the ball. They are hoping for a change this fall due to the arrival of junior college transfer Tyler Lorenzen. Does the last name sound familiar? It should as former Kentucky star QB and current NY Giants back-up Jared is his older brother. Last season, Tyler threw for 26 touchdown and only three interceptions while also adding over 800 yards rushing. He definitely has a good arm and wheels, but it will be interesting to see how he reacts to his first taste of D-1 football. When Lorenzen does throw the ball, he will have a few capable pass catchers on the receiving end in 2006 starters Terrence Jeffers and Brad Kanuch. Both players were forced into action as freshmen last season and look to make significant strides in their sophomore campaigns. Similar to Duke, the Huskies return most of their depth chart along the offensive line. While they struggled mightily at times last year, they have some very large individuals up front that can push people around.
Turning to the defense, the Devils have several questions that will be answered on Saturday. With the one game suspension imposed on leading tackler Mike Tauiliili, Duke will have 3 new starters at linebacker from a season ago. With Tauiliili out, SLB Vincent Rey slides over from the strong-side to the middle. At 255 pounds, Rey is a stout force against the run and should have an interesting one-on-one match-up with the Huskies' Brown. Stepping into the strong-side position for Duke is redshirt junior Tim Ball, a converted running back. Ball has had a great preseason and should be a capable starter during Tauiliili's suspension. On the weakside, junior Charles Robinson will start his first college game on Saturday. While he has played extensively on special teams during his career, he has only been a defensive fill-in up to this point. Also expect former QB turned LB Marcus Jones to play significant minutes on Saturday, especially on passing downs. Jones is a superb athlete, and being a former QB gives him added instinct in pass coverage.
Another problem area for the Devils is at cornerback. Duke will be breaking in two new starters here as well. The staff is really high on sophomore Leon Wright. He played extensively last year as a nickel back and should be ready to step into the big shoes left be 2-time all-ACC CB John Talley. The other CB position will be handled, at least initially by Glenn Williams. Williams has played both corner and safety during his first two seasons in Durham, so he should be able to provide capable coverage. Expect lightning-fast junior Jabari Marshall to see playing time as well. The good news in the defensive backfield is that both starting safeties, senior Chris Davis and Junior Adrian Aye-Darko return and should solidify and somewhat shaky defensive backfield.
Despite losing two starters from last year's defensive line, the outlook for this unit in 2007 is quite rosy. Duke has recruited this position better than any other on the team, and better than many in the ACC. The fruits of this recruiting labor should start to show this fall. Sophomore defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase appears fully recovered from a knee injury sustained two years ago, and is poised to become one of the ACC's best defensive linemen. Nose guard Ayanga Okpokoworuk is another highly recruited sophomore that should be a mainstay in the middle. He is on the light side for a nose guard, but has great strength and exceptional speed to compensate. Senior Patrick Bailey is the lone senior on the depth chart, and will most likely be the Devils to pass rusher from his weaskide end spot. On the strong side, sophomore Ryan Radloff is primed for a breakout year. Depth along the line is also excellent as the Devils can rotate 5-6 players in at both end and tackle to give the starters rest. Despite the strength along the defensive line, questions at linebacker and cornerback tilt the field a little in Connecticut's favor.
Connecticut QB Tyler Lorenzen vs. the Duke pass defense
Duke will be geared up to stop Donald Brown, and Ted Roof defenses have been successful at stopping good backs in the past. Where Duke has been most vulnerable during the Roof era is in passing situations. Duke has not covered very well, and has had big problems with dual-threat quarterbacks, even if they are not the best throwers. Last season, both Chris Nickson of Vanderbilt and Reggie Ball of Georgia Tech torched the Devils. Neither player was an exceptionally good thrower, but both players could hurt you with their feet. This forced the Duke defense to commit extra players to help with the scramble which opened up the passing game. Lorenzen ran for over 800 yards last season in the junior college ranks. While the competition level was not what he will face on Saturday, the statistics show he can run with the ball. Duke must not allow Lorenzen to gash them with his scrambling ability and also must disguise their coverages to confuse the new UConn signal-caller. If Duke can make Lorenzen's first college game one to forget, the Devils will win the game.
Three Keys to a Duke victory:
1. Tackling: Donald Brown is a good, powerful running back that you must wrap-up to bring down. The Devils must take proper angles to their tackles, get their feet set, and not let go after the initial hit. If the Devils are lazy with their tackling, Brown will have a big day.
2. Special teams: One of Connecticut's best offensive weapons is their electric return man, Larry Taylor. Duke must not allow Taylor to break a long touchdown return. The good news for Duke is that they have weapons of their own on special teams that concern opponents. Kick returners Jabari Marshall and Ronnie Drummer have game-beraking speed. Whichever team can get a big play on special teams will get a vital leg-up to a victory.
3. Red-zone offense: In the past two season openers, both losses, the Blue Devil offense has squandered opportunity after opportunity to score points in the red-zone. Had Duke been efficient in this area in those games, the Devils would have emerged victorious in both. When the offense gets inside the Huskies' 20-yard line, they must score points, preferably touchdowns. Coming away empty in those situations is a morale crushing even that the fragile psyche Blue Devil team cannot afford.
There is no sugar-coating this fact: This is the most important game in Ted Roof's head coaching career. Duke absolutely needs a victory in this game to snap their 20-game losing streak, show their fans and the administration they are taking steps in the right direction, and gain confidence going into a 4-game road trip after this weekend. On paper, this looks to be a pretty even matchup. Both teams have talent at the skill positions, question marks on the offensive line, and gaping holes on their defenses that both coaches hope work themselves out on Saturday.
As far as Duke is concern, the biggest problem they have faced during this 20-game losing streak is consistently scoring enough points to win. During his freshman season, Thad Lewis showed he can pick defenses apart given time to throw the ball. If the Duke offensive line gives Lewis time to scan the field, he should be able to exploit the green Connecticut safeties and throw for big yardage. On the other side of the ball, Duke must be able to slow down Donald Brown and force Lorezen to beat then throwing from the pocket. At this point in the season, the defenses are usually ahead of the offenses. In this game, however, I expect both teams to move the ball on offense as the defenses struggle with their new personnel. In the end, it will come down to one offense being able to execute in the second half. Thad Lewis will have a big day and the sometimes forgotten Duke running game will have a big day wearing the Connecticut defense out in the second half on a hot summer day in Durham. Duke will come through when it counts and win it in a close one.
Duke - 31
Connecticut - 28