Mid-Season Awards; Second Half Predictions

The 2007 season has already produced several close calls and a memorable victory. TDD looks back at the first half of the season to hand out mid-season awards, while also looking ahead to the remaining schedule.

The Duke Blue Devils enter their bye week with a disappointing 1-6 mark, including an 0-4 ACC record. Despite several outstanding individual performances, the Devils just have not been able to gain any sort of momentum after breaking their 23-game losing streak in week 3 against Northwestern. Let's review the first half of the season and also take a look at what to expect in the second half.

First-half Awards:

Offensive MVP - WR Eron Riley

As one of the true bright spots for Duke, Riley has emerged as one of the ACC's best wide receivers. He currently ranks 3rd in receiving yards a game (just a fraction behind Clemson's Aaron Kelly and FSU's Greg Carr), and leads the ACC with 7 reeceiving touchdowns. After starting the season slowly, Riley exploded for 235 yards and 4 scores against Navy, and followed that performance up with two more 100+ yard receiving days against Miami and Wake Forest. If Duke is to break into the win column, they will need to find ways to get the ball into Riley's hands.

Defensive MVP – DE Patrick Bailey

Unfortunately for Duke, the season ended in game 6 for Bailey when he suffered a torn ACL in his knee. That ended a good Duke career for the senior, who at the time of his injury led the team in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (7) while also ranking 3rd in tackles. Bailey led by example with his relentlessness. Duke will need to adjust to life without Bailey now that his college career is over. Still, he deserves recognition for his leadership and quality on-field play.

Most pleasant surprise, Offense – TE/FB Brandon King

While not put up gaudy stats so far this season, King has provided Duke with a reliable option blocking and receiving in his dual role as starting fullback and backup tight end. His 3 three receiving scores rank him second on the team in touchdowns, tied with Jomar Wright. He is also a sledgehammer as a blocker, big enough to take on linebackers and defensive ends.

Most pleasant surprise, Defense (first-half) – LB Vincent Rey

Rey was only supposed to start the season-opener against Connecticut while fellow LB Mike Tauiliili served a one-game suspension. His play, however, has forced the coaching staff to leave him on the field. He is currently leading the ACC in tackles per game (11.3). He has also chipped in with 6.5 tackles for loss, 4 passes defended, and 2.5 sacks. That is quite a bit of production for a guy that was supposed to be a reserve this year.

Best Play – Duke's red-zone stand to win the Northwestern game

Of course the best play of the season so far would be the one that preserved their only victory. Northwestern had the ball on the Duke 6 yard-line, 4th and goal with one chance to score. The Devils blitzed QB C.J. Bacher and DT Ayanga Okpokowuruk broke through the line untouched. Bacher was able to get the pass off, but the pressure forced him to release the ball before he wanted to, and the pass fell incomplete. For at least one Saturday, the Duke Blue Devils tasted victory.

Biggest disappointment – Giving away the Navy game

Coming off the Northwestern game, Duke put on an offensive display which Navy was unable to contain. Unfortunately for the Devils, the Middies were just as proficient on offense. Despite holding an 11-point 4th quarter lead, Duke was unable to put the game away as Navy scored twice to tie the game. The Devils were then stopped on their final scoring opportunity by 3 untimely penalties. Navy was able to get the ball back with just over a minute left and kick a game winning field goal as timed expired. The Devils were left scratching their head wondering, "What if?"

Second-Half Projections:

Offensive MVP – QB Thaddeus Lewis

Lewis was a close runner-up to Riley for first half MVP, but Riley got the nod for his conference leading numbers. The second half success of the offense will be largely dictated by how Lewis responds after a week off. He has look absolutely brilliant at times (Northwestern and Navy) and pedestrian at others (Wake Forest and Virginia). When he's hot, Lewis has the ability to beat just about any defense. He needs to be more consistent with the easy throws. His arm and talent give him the ability to make tough throws, but inconsistency in finding and delivering the ball on target to the short receivers has prevented the Duke passing game from firing on all cylinders.

Defensive MVP – CB Leon Wright

Wright has had the unenviable task of replacing Duke's all-time interception leader, John Talley. While he has not recorded interceptions at the same pace, he has actually been an upgrade over Talley in some respects. Despite his short stature, Wright is one of the conference's best corners in run support. He is a great open-field tackler and does not back down from contact. He has suffered a few minor injuries in the past few weeks, but the mid-season bye week should allow his sufficient time to heal. If he's healthy in the second half, expect him to provide a few more interceptions and continue his strong play against the run.

Most pleasant surprise, Offense – WR Austin Kelly

With a season-ending knee injury to 3rd WR Rafael Chestnut, true freshman Austin Kelly has moved up the depth chart and is now playing more than he had ever imagined in 2007. While he still has a lot to learn, Kelly has flashed skills that have made Duke fans excited about his long-term potential. Kelly has 7 receptions so far this season, but is averaging 17 yards per catch and scored an important TD late in the Wake Forest game, breaking a tackle and making 3 would-be tacklers miss on a 19-yard score. Kelly's continued emergence is vital to Duke's late-season fortunes.

Most pleasant surprise, Defense – DT/DE Kinney Rucker

Kinney Rucker has played offensive guard, defensive tackle, and nose guard so far in his short collegiate career. With Patrick Bailey gone and Ryan Radloff still recovering from a back injury, the Blue Devil coaching staff was forced to find a fill-in at defensive end against Virginia Tech. Rucker was inserted at weakside end and responded with 5 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a quarterback hurry. Rucker gives Duke the one thing it lacked with Bailey out on the edge: considerable size. At 290 pounds, Rucker is a full 60 pounds heavier than Bailey. While he might not be quite as fast, Rucker should make Duke tougher against the run. He also has surprising speed for a guy of his size. Put those two attributes together, Duke might have found itself a defensive end.

Biggest disappointment –Duke will lose to North Carolina

Duke fans will not like this prediction, but UNC has exceptionally talented young players that are starting to step up and make plays. QB T.J. Yates is a bad match-up for the Duke defense. He is accurate on his underreath throws and has the patience to allow his receivers to come open. The Blue Devil defense does not rush the passer well enough to hurry Yates into mistakes. Duke will score points in this game and it should be an entertaining one to watch. UNC, however, will prevail because of better placekicking and the inability to stop UNC's passing game when it matters.

Biggest surprise – Duke will win at Notre Dame

The Irish are a struggling football team that has played a tough schedule. They will have very low team morale going into this late November contest. Their offense struggles to score points weekly. Their QBs have underperformed and the Irish offensive line is having trouble blocking people. Duke, on the other had, has played well on the road against mig-name opponents. Many of their lackluster games have come in the sparsely crowded confines of Wallace Wade stadium. The players will be in top form in such a historic place. It will be cold and slick on the Notre Dame field, but the Devils will come up with a big play from one of their playmakers (Riley, Wright or Ronnie Drummer) and the Devils will upset the Irish in South Bend in the game that could get Charlie Weis fired.

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