When Duke Has the Ball:
The bye week could not have come at a better time for the Duke offense. In games against Northwestern, Navy and Miami, they seemed to have found their identity as a vertical passing team. But in the last two games against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, the Devils have struggled to move the ball consistently and have dug themselves big holes to climb out of in each contest. Against Wake, they were able to claw their way back into the game by exploding for three quick second half scores. Against the athletic Hokies though, Duke struggled throughout the entire contest.
This week, the Duke offense will face a similar talent level in FSU. QB Thad Lewis has hit a bit of a rough patch in the season. After 5 games, he was among the league leaders in passing efficiency, yardage, and total offense. While Duke did score 36 points against Wake, it was clear that Lewis was not in rhythm. He was not hitting open receivers like he had in previous games and just did not seem comfortable in the pocket, despite not facing much pressure. Against Virginia Tech, the Duke offense was completely overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage and that caused the Duke staff to formulate a very conservative game plan which backfired the Duke defense could not keep Tech off the scoreboard. The Devils need Lewis to regain his touch and confidence to have a chance against the Seminole defense.
Virginia Tech had success defending explosive Duke wideout Eron Riley by employing a lot of bracket coverage with a linebacker or corner underneath and a safety over top guarding against the long pass. FSU loves to play man-coverage on the outside and blitz the QB. If they do not provide safety help over the top on Riley, Duke will have a clear advantage in this match-up. If the Noles double Riley, Duke will need to spread the ball out more to their other receivers, Jomar Wright, Austin Kelly, TE Nick Stefanow, and fullbacks Brandon King and Clifford Harris. Duke seemed afraid to force the ball deep to Riley with safety help over top. Duke must counter this to get Riley touches. He is the Devils' best play-maker. Duke must also find a way to run the ball with some effectiveness this weekend to take the pressure off the passing game. Re'Quan Boyette has shown signs of effectiveness in recent weeks. He is averaging over 5 yards a carry this season, with most of his yards coming in the last three games. If Duke is not able to run the ball, the Noles will drop their safeties into coverage and the Devil passing game will become less effective.
Defensively, FSU is not the overbearing powerhouse that most fans are used to. They still, however, have some great players that can make great plays on that side of the ball. LB Geno Hayes is a near-lock for all-ACC honors. He has athleticism and range to make plays all over the field and is the conference's leader in tackles for loss (13.0). Fellow LB Derek Nicholson is the team's leading tackler. DE Everette Brown will be a tough match-up for the Duke tackles in passing situations. Safeties Roger Williams and Myron Rolle will be big keys in FSU's defense of the Duke passing game.
When Florida State Has the Ball:
The talk around Seminole land this week has been re-insertion of QB Drew Weatherford as the starter. Xavier Lee had started the last 3 contests, but his inconsistency throwing the ball and propensity for turnovers prompted the FSU offensive staff to go with Weatherford this weekend. He will have a few weapons to work with WR Greg Carr is a huge threat on the outside, both literally (6'6") and figuratively (19.6 yards per catch). He is complimented by explosive sophomore Preston Parker, FSU catch leader. Parker is a former HS quarterback with shifty moves and jets. The Duke defense will need to watch for his play-making ability at receiver and punt returner. It would not be surprising to see him throw a pass this weekend as well. The bulk of the FSU running game will be handled by Antone Smith, who is 9th in the ACC in rushing. Surprisingly, this is one area where the Seminoles have struggled quite a bit in 2007. Coming into this weekend, they are averaging only 115 yards per game on the ground and have scored only seven rushing touchdowns. The only team with fewer scores on the ground is Duke.
The key to stopping the Seminole offense is to get pressure on Weatherford and force him to make hasty decisions. Weatherford has a propensity to make ill-advised throws under duress, which can result in turnovers. The pass rush starts with the front four. With leading sack-man Patrick Bailey out for the season, Duke will need to find other players to step up and provide a pass rush. Against a team with the skill position talent of FSU, the Devils have to be selective about blitzing. If they leave the cornerbacks in single coverage too many times, they will eventually give up a big play. Pressure must be provided by the down linemen. DT Vince Oghobaase has been a steady presence in the middle of the line. He often commands double-teams which leaves the other linemen in one-on-one battles. One player to watch is DT/DE Kinney Rucker. He saw his first action at defensive end last week and ended up with 5 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He showed good speed off the edge and with his 290 pounds provides Duke with a stout run defender to that side.
Duke's biggest struggle this season has been defending the short passing game. The Devils are last in the conference in pass efficiency defense and are allowing opposing QBs to complete almost 70% of their passes. One cannot help but think Duke' struggles with the short passing game could have influenced the decision to go with Weatherford this week. Lee has made some great throws the past few weeks, but has struggled with the easy ones. With Weatherford, FSU has the ability to complete curls, drags and outs with regularity.
Key Matchup: Duke offensive line vs. FSU pass rush.
Duke's #1 offensive priority this week must be keeping the pass rush off Thad Lewis. If FSU is able to get constant pressure in the backfield, the offense will struggle to move the ball. The Devils have allowed a conference-worst 28 sacks in 7 football games and FSU is known to bring frequent blitzes and pressure on the passer and rely on their defensive back to handle opposing receivers in single coverage. If Lewis gets hit regularly, Duke will get blown out. If the Devils can provide adequate protection, this game could get interesting.
Three Keys to a Duke victory:
Force Punts: The Duke defense has struggled getting off the field this season. They are the conference's worst team in 3rd down percentage defense (42.9). Duke must find a way to get off the field at least two out of every three third downs (less than 33%). If the Devils can best this mark, they will improve their chances at victory tremendously.
Pressure Weatherford: FSU has switched quarterbacks twice this season for a reason. Neither Drew Weatherford nor Xavier Lee has enjoyed any sort of sustained success running the offense. Duke must find a way to get in Weatherford's face and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Expect FSU to throw short early to help him establish a rhythm. If the Devils can force FSU into 3rd and long, they need to do whatever it takes to get to Weatherford quickly. When the Devils allow even an average QB time to throw (see Sean Glennon), they will pick the Devils apart. Duke does not have the speed in the back 7 to cover the Seminole skill player for too long.
Hold on to the ball: Duke has put the ball on the ground a bunch in 2007. So far they have fumbled the ball an amazing 16 times but have only lost 6 of them. Still the fumbles have resulted in significant yardage losses and have thwarted some key drives over the course of the season. The Seminoles thrive on their defense creating turnovers and easy scores for their offense. Duke must secure the ball and not give FSU those easy points if they wish to remain competitive in the game.
Despite FSU's recent struggles, they are the clear favorite heading in to this weekend's tilt. The Devils do not have the overall team speed to keep up with the home team, all things being equal. The one hope for Duke is that they have an advantage at the most important position on the field: quarterback. Thad Lewis has been far more effective throwing the ball than any of the Seminole signal-callers. Still, Lewis has struggled at times and cannot afford to be off his game if Duke is to compete in this contest.
What will happen this weekend?
FSU will attack the Duke defense with underneath throws and Weatherford will find an early rhythm. On the other side of the ball Thad Lewis will rebound from two straight off games and keep the Devils in this contest with his arm. Eventually, however, watch for either Greg Carr or Preston Parker to make a big play that will give the Seminoles a working margin. The Devils will continue to fight and make this an entertaining contest. In the end, however, FSU will have just a little too much speed for Duke to handle. The Devils will have to wait another week to break their losing streak.
Florida State– 38
Duke – 21