Preview: Va. Tech Hokies (5-1, 2-0)

Returning home from a 1-3 road trip, the Duke Blue Devils fell flat on their face last weekend in a 41-36 loss to cross-division rival Wake Forest. In that game, the Devils had plenty of chances to seize victory, but instead stumbled. Now at 1-5 on the season, Duke enters a brutal 5-game stretch against some of the best team in the ACC.

The first contest is this coming Saturday against the Virginia Tech Hokies. Since joining the ACC, Tech has easily handled the Devils in every meeting between the two schools. The last time these two teams met in Wallace Wade Stadium, the Hokies held Duke to an almost impossibly low 35 yards of total offense in a 45-0 shutout victory. The Devils did not fare much better last year in Blacksburg, as the Hokies once again whitewashed the Devils 37-0. Will be Blue Devil offense end their two-year drought against the Tech defense and score enough points to make this a competitive ball game? Let's take a look at the match-ups.

When Duke Has the Ball:

The Devils took 2 ½ quarters to get started last weekend, but when they got revved up, they were able to put points on the board quickly. The success or failure of the offense lies solely in the hands of QB Thad Lewis. After performing at a very high level for 3 consecutive weeks, Lewis took a step backward on Saturday, completing only 45% of his passes and throwing 2 interceptions. He simply was not on target, overthrowing open receivers with little to no pass rush. One of his overthrows last week led to a Wake Forest defensive touchdown. The Tech defense is a much more opportunistic group. Despite his struggles, Lewis still threw for 4 scores and rallied his team back into the game despite being down 34-9 midway thought the 3rd quarter. The Blue Devil offense needs Lewis performing at his best if they are to score enough points to win Saturday.

The Hokie defense has been solid so far in 2007, giving up only 16.3 points per game and 320 yards per game. They have bounced back nicely from the LSU debacle earlier this year and seem to hit their stride last week in their win at Clemson. Their run defense and pass efficiency defense both rank 2nd in the ACC. They will be a little short-handed this weekend, however, as all-American candidate and leading tackler Vince Hall will not play due to a wrist injury. This will transfer the leadership load to fellow LB Xavier Adibi, who is among the conference leaders in both tackles and tackles for loss. CB Brandon Flowers is one of the conference's best cover corners and will give Thad Lewis fits. DL Chris Ellis will be a tough assignment for the Duke offensive line. He leads the Hokies with 4.5 sacks and 8 quarterback hurries.

Tech loves to pressure the line of scrimmage and play man coverage on the outside. This sort of defense requires offenses to execute their blitz pickup assignments correctly. If not, Tech has the speed and athletes to get to the QB in a hurry. If the rushers are picked up correctly, however, offenses can expose their lack of safety support in coverage. For a Duke team that has already allowed 23 sacks on the season, pass protection is a very high priority this weekend. If Tech is successful at getting constant pressure on the quarterback, Duke will struggle to score once again against Tech.

Advantage: Virginia Tech

When Virginia Tech Has the Ball:

The normally potent Tech offense has struggled mightily this season. The Hokies are dead last in the conference in total offense and passing offense. Even their normally reliable running game his having its difficulties. Preseason all-ACC RB Brandon Ore is not getting the same holes has he did a year ago and subsequently is not among the ACC's top 10 in rushing. The Hokies' struggles can be traced to two areas: quarterback play and a suspect offensive line. Tyrod Taylor supplanted Sean Glennon under center after their loss to LSU earlier this season. Taylor is a very adept runner, but does not have much accuracy throwing the ball. As a result, Taylor is completing only slightly more than 50% of his passes. The biggest problem for the Hokies appears to be in the trenches. They are not getting a good push at the point of attack in the running game. When the Hokies are forced to pass, Taylor is often finding little time to scan the field for receivers and having to scramble for positive yardage. Duke is dead last in the conference in sacks allowed with 23, but the Hokies are nipping at their heels right now having allowed 20 so far.

Duke suffered a huge blow in last week's loss as senior defensive end Patrick Bailey was lost for the season with a knee injury. While not the biggest player on the field, Bailey played with intensity and desire, and used these traits to lead the Devils in sacks and tackles for loss. Junior end Greg Akinbiyi will get the first shot at replacing Bailey. Freshman Adam Banks, who started the year at DE but has played OLB for the past 3 games, will probably get some snaps as well. Banks is almost a clone of Bailey with respect to size, speed and toughness, but he will have difficulty replacing the lost leadership. The rest of the line should be licking their chops, as Tech is having all sorts of issues moving the ball. Duke LB's Vince Rey and Mike Tauiliili are good physical matchups for the Tech running game. CB Leon Wright is starting to establish himself as a solid ACC corner and is one of the conference's best in run support.

Advantage: Even

Key Match-up: Duke WR Eron Riley vs. Virginia Tech CB Brandon Flowers

In his past two games, Flowers has seen two all-ACC candidate wide receivers. Last week he lined up against Clemson's Aaron Kelly. Two weeks ago, he saw UNC's Hakeem Nicks. Now he must face the ACC's leading yardage and touchdown receiver in Duke's Eron Riley. After a slow start, Riley has been nearly unstoppable for the last 4 weeks. He ran roughshod over Wake's best CB Alphonso Smith last week. Most NFL draft experts think that Flowers is the ACC's best CB prospect. Flowers will have to contend with Riley's 5" height advantage along with his ability to play over most defensive backs.

Three Keys to a Duke victory:

Special Teams: The term "Beamerball" is used to describe Tech's excellence in special teams under Head Coach Frank Beamer. Last week's victory over Clemson was a classic case of why this term is now in the college football lexicon. The Hokies were able to return both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns. The Devils at least have someone who is familiar with Tech excellence in this area. Special teams coach Danny Pearman was once an assistant in Blacksburg. Still, the Devils will need to pay special attention to this phase of the game. The punt coverage unit needs to stay in their lanes and make sure tackles on outstanding return man Eddie Royal. He has already returned two for scores this season. With all the attention that will be paid to Royal, the Devils must not neglect their blocking assignments. The Hokies have blocked more punts than anyone over the last 10 years.

Watch the Scramble: In the past, Duke has often struggled with mobile QBs. Tyrod Taylor is probably the best scrambler of anyone the Devils will face this season. The defense must account for his scrambling ability in their coverage schemes. Expect Duke to limit their blitzing and try to force Taylor to beat them throwing the ball from within the pocket.

Limit the 3 and out: Last weekend, the Duke defense gave up 41 points, but many of their problems could be traced to bad field position. This was due to turnovers as well as the offense going 3-and-out on several consecutive possessions. The Devils must be able to sustain drives, if for no other reason to give Tech a long field to work with after a punt. The Hokie offense has not had much success driving the ball down the field this season. If Duke can force them to sustain drives, the chances of making stops go up dramatically.

Final Analysis:

For the first time since Virginal Tech joined the ACC, Duke has a chance to compete and win when the two teams take the field on Saturday. The Hokies are usually just too strong and physical on both lines for the Devils. This year, however, Tech is not nearly as strong on either line. The defense is still there, but the Hokies are relying on it to stop opponents and to set up scoring opportunities for their offense. It has been a season-long struggle for Tech on offense. They simply do not run the ball as well as they need to for consistent success. For a team without a strong thrower in the pocket, a ground game is essential if they are to have sustained offensive success.

For the first time in forever, the Duke offense can score points on just about anyone. Eron Riley is a legitimate all-conference performer at wide receiver and Thad Lewis might be the conference best QB not named Matt Ryan. Still, the Devils will have to overcome a stout Hokie defense that will force Lewis to make quick decisions. It is up to offensive coordinator Peter Vaas to come up with a game play that will slow down the Tech pass rush. If Lewis can regain the accuracy he showed prior to last weekend, the Devils will move the ball this weekend.

The biggest problem for the Duke defense will be containing Tyrod Taylor. Duke's rush defense is slowly coming around. Last week against run-happy Wake, the Devils only allowed 112 total yards on the ground, giving up a meager 2.7 yards per carry. This week, the Hokies will run Brandon Ore to soften up the defensive interior and use Taylor's speed on the outside to keep the defense on their heels. If the Devils are to stop the Tech offense, they must force 3rd and long situations and make Taylor throw the ball to win the game.

What will happen on Saturday?

Expect a low-scoring start. There will be plenty of punts had in the first half. Tech will get a big special teams play, probably a blocked punt or a long return by Eddie Royal which will allow Tech to open up a working margin. The Devils will fight valiantly, but in the end they will make on or two mistakes which will sink their chances this weekend. The Devils will head into their bye week looking for answers to the question "What might have been?" in the first half of the season.

Final Score:

Virginia Tech - 27
Duke - 20

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