Preview: Clemson Tigers (6-2, 3-2)

Previewing the Blue Devils and Tigers who kick off on Saturday in Wallace Wade Stadium

Having dropped their last five contests, the Duke Blue Devils head into this weekend's match-up against Clemson searching to rediscover how to win football games. Last Saturday, the Devils were outclassed on both sides of the ball in a 25-6 defeat at the hands of Florida State. Clemson provides a different set of challenges for the Devils and are the clear favorite. Do the Devils have enough on either side of the ball to make this interesting? Lets take a look at he match-ups.

When Duke has the Ball:

The Devils have now gone 3 straight games without scoring more than 14 points. Granted, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Florida State are three very good defensive football teams. Still the Devils have not helped themselves with shoddy execution, sloppy fundamentals, and untimely penalties that have killed the Devils chances to score points. As with any offense, the success or failure to score points largely depends on the performance of the big guys up front. The Duke offensive line, for the most part, has had an awful 2007 season. The Devils are last in the league in rushing average, yards per carry, and have allowed the most sacks. QB Thad Lewis often times does not have the time to scan the field and find the open receivers. Instead, he is forced to get rid of the ball early to his outlet receivers that have not had time to get open. As a result, the passes are either incomplete or stopped for little gain. The Blue Devil running backs have had a tough go of it this season. On many of their carries, they are avoiding would-be tacklers in the backfield and on not-so-rare occasions get hit right after receiving the handoff. For the Devils to have any measure of success this weekend, they must get better production out of the offensive line.

If Duke can get blocking up front, they have shown the ability to put points on the board. Thad Lewis has thrown for 1808 yards and 17 touchdowns so far in 2007. Wide receiver Eron Riley is one of the conference's true playmakers, leading the league in TD receptions and averages 21 yards every time he catches the ball. Fellow WR Jomar Wright is 4th in the league, averaging 4.88 receptions per game. Duke must find ways to get the ball in the hands of these talented wide receivers. The Devils have been long starved for quality receivers and now they have two. They just need the QB to have time to find them in their routes. Running backs Re'Quan Boyette and Justin Boyle have done little on the ground this season. Boyle doesn't seem to have fully recovered from a 2006 knee injury, but it is sometimes tough to tell because of the lack of holes being opened at the point of attack. Boyette has the ability to make something out of nothing, as his 4.6 yard-per-carry average suggests. Duke needs some production out of the running game for sustained offensive success this Saturday and beyond.

The Tigers come into this weekend ranked second in the conference in total defense. They are good, but not great against the run, giving up 137 yards per game on the ground. Linebackers Tramaine Billie and Nick Watkins are the leading tacklers for the Clemson defense. The Devils had better run the ball well this weekend because the Tiger pass defense is the conference's best by a significant margin. They are allowing only 155 yards per game through the air, and have a 98.0 pass efficiency defense. They are doing it in unconventional fashion as they are last in the conference with 12 QB sacks and are in the middle of the pack in interceptions. They are just playing good coverage defense, forcing teams to throw underneath and tackling well.

Advantage: Clemson

When Clemson has the Ball:

The Tigers are a nightmare match-up for the Blue Devil defense. Clemson has a dynamic tailback tandem of James Davis and CJ Spiller. While the Devils have yet to face Spiller, then true-freshman Davis tore them to shreds in 2005. The Devils are not horrible against the run, giving up 169 yards per game, but they have not yet faced the caliber of runner that Clemson fields. If the defense loads up against the run, however, the Tigers have found a pretty solid passing option in Junior Cullen Harper. He balances out their offense quite nicely when teams load up against the run. On the season, Harper ranks second in the conference in passing yardage and is tops in passing efficiency. His favorite target is all-ACC candidate Aaron Kelly, who leads the conference in receiving yardage tied for the lead in touchdown receptions (with Duke's Riley) and is second in catches.

Overall, the Tigers lead the league in scoring and are second overall in total offense. For a Duke defense that last in total defense and scoring defense, this could signal another long day on the field. Part of the defense's failure lies in the offense's inability to sustain drives and hold on to the ball. Still, the defense gives up more yards per play than any other team in the conference, which indicates they are not helping themselves. Duke has not been terrible against the run this season, but is getting eaten alive by the opponent's passing game. Harper's throwing ability will be the largest factor that in deciding the Tigers' offensive fate this weekend.

Advantage: Clemson

Matchup to Watch:

Duke LBs Mike Tauiliili and Vince Rey vs. Clemson RBs James Davis and CJ Spiller

The two Duke linebackers are the team's leading tacklers. Both players are good at bringing ball carriers down, but to bring a runner down you have to catch him first. Spiller and Davis are both very elusive in the open field and have serious speed advantages over the Duke linebackers. The defenders must take proper pursuit angles and anticipate what holes the backs will select. This will happen with lots of film study and good instincts. If Davis and/or Spiller have a big game, the Devils will not be competitive on Saturday.

Three Keys to a Duke Victory:

Field Position - Duke has been playing uphill for most of the season. The lack of sustained drives on offense combined with sub-par execution on special teams has left the defense in the shadow of their own goal posts when they take the field way too many times. The Devils have to turn the tables and obtain better starting field position.

Third down – Over the last 3 weeks, the Devils have struggled getting off the field on third down. Lack of execution on this down allowed teams to sustain drives and wear the defense down over the course of the game. Duke must not allow Clemson to convert, especially on 3rd and long. If the Devils can get off the field, they might be able to stay in the game.

Pass rush – The Tigers running game has allowed them to be very effective in play action and the threat of draws and screens to Davis and Spillers gives the Clemson offensive line extra help in protecting Cullen Harper. The Devils need a big game from their down linemen to generate at least token pressure on the quarterback. If Duke allows Harper to get comfortable and scan the field, he will pick the Devils apart.

Final Analysis:

This is one of the few contests that Duke has little shot in. The Clemson offense is just a nightmare match-up for the Blue Devils. Harper's accuracy passing the ball directly exposes Duke's biggest weakness on defense: counter-acting the short passing game. Even pedestrian signal-callers have thrown for big yardage against Duke this season. Despite the Tigers being without slot-man Jacoby Ford this weekend, they still have enough skill players to beat the Devils in one-on-one match-ups.

Of course, if the Duke offense was firing on all cylinders, they might be able to match Clemson score for score. Unfortunately for Duke fans, the offense has been quite stagnant against some of the conference's better defenses and this trend is unlikely to reverse itself this weekend against the #1 rated Tiger pass defense. The X-factor in this contest is the psyche of the Clemson team. Their last trip to Durham resulted in Duke's last conference victory. Three years later, the Tigers are still trying to shake their Jeckyll and Hyde personality. Under Tommy Bowden, the Tigers have a habit of stumbling against lesser conference opponents. Also of note, the Tigers also have a habit of fading, as the weather gets cooler. Still, Clemson can play their "B" game and probably have enough to handle the Devils in 2007. If Duke were to win this game, it would be easily the biggest upset of the 2007 ACC season. This one could get ugly early. The Devils will play hard and compete, but Clemson will score way too many point for Duke to compete this weekend.

Final Score:

Clemson – 52
Duke – 21


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