Preview: Duke (3-3) v. Vanderbilt (5-2)

The Blue Devils return to action Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee when they travel to Vanderbilt to face the 5-2 Commodores. For Duke it's all about rebounding from last week's collapse against Miami. For Vandy the mission is to achieve bowl eligibility.

In addition to look for the program's sixth victory (a first in more than 20 years for the perennial SEC bottom dweller), Vanderbilt will be hoping to stay unbeaten in Vanderbilt Stadium in 2008 having beaten South Carolina, Rice, and Auburn at home.

Meanwhile the Blue Devils will be looking to snap a two game losing streak in 2008. So far the Blue Devils are just 0-1 away from Wallace Wade Stadium, but Duke better get used to traveling since four of the remaining six games are road contests.

When Vanderbilt Has The Ball:
The Commodores' offensive unit has been efficient under fourth year junior quarterback Mackenzi Adams - especially in the red-zone. Vanderbilt is tied for first in the SEC (with Florida) when it comes to converting scoring chances inside the 20. To be specific the Commodores have ventured inside their opponent's 20 yard line 23 times and have put points on the board 22 of those times (96%). 17 of those have resulted in touchdowns - 74% - which ranks as the best in the conference and among the best in the country. In addition the Commodores rank 12th in the NCAA in turnover margin (+7).

Such offensive effiency has been crucial because, as a unit, the Commodores rank 12th in total offense at just 249.9 yards per game. Over half of that production comes from the running attack led by junior tailback Jared Hawkins (56.6 yards per game) and backup quarterback Chris Nickerson (44.6).

The rushing success has been courtesy of a talented offensive line that features four fourth year juniors and a redshirt freshman averaging around 6-foot-4 and 300.8 pounds. Despite the years in the program, the Commodore line has started eight different players in the trenches this season - with seven making their first career starts.

The receiving corps is lead by seniors Sean Walker and George Smith on the outside and Justin Wheeler in the slot. Walker is the team's most consistent threat (17 catches for 216 yards and one touchdown), while tight end Brandon Barden is a dangerous red-zone threat (13/109/2).

On special teams senior kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt has become the program's all-time leading scorer (225 career points). On the season he is 7-of-9 on field goal attempts including 3-of-5 from 40 yards and beyond. He has also converted all 20 of his extra point attempts.

When Vanderbilt Is On Defense:
Like the offense, the Commodore defense makes a living by making plays in the red-zone. Just as they are at the top of the SEC in scoring efficiency, Vanderbilt ranks second in the conference in defensive efficiency by limiting opponents to just 14 successful scoring trips in 21 red-zone trips. Only 10 of those 21 trips have resulted in touchdowns for the Commodores (48%).

Unlike their last two opponents which featured their best players on the defensive front, the Commodores defense features its top players in the defensive backfield. The veteran bunch made up of junior cornerbacks Myron Lewis and D.J. Moore with junior safety Ryan Hamilton and senior Reshard Langford, ranks second in the SEC with 13 interceptions on the season.

Moore, who earned First Team All-SEC honors last season after leading the team with six interceptions and averaging 25.7 yards per return on kick-offs. He also spent time as a wide receiver and kick returner. This season that versatility was also on display earlier this year against Rice when he put up 206 all-purpose yards on just seven touches. Meanwhile Hamilton earned national defensive player of the week honors last week after accumulating three interceptions - one for a touchdown after a 79 yard return.

The strong backfield has paid dividends in picking off passes and helping the offense earn crucial field position, which is important because the defense as a whole has forced just four fumbles in seven games.

Junior punter Brett Upson has earned looks for potential all-conference honors averaging 40.8 yards per kick (44 attempts) with an impressive seven punts traveling more than 50 yards. In situational punting, Upson has been able to pin opponents inside their own 20 a remarkable 39% of the time.

Fearless Prediction:
The Blue Devils will be looking to snap their two game losing streak with improved defensive performances in the red-zone. Against Miami the Duke defensive backs were left on an island over and over again against more explosive playmakers. The result was 35 unanswered second half points. Against Vanderbilt Duke should be able to match up a bit better in the passing game, but the defensive line and linebackers must put pressure on the Commodore quarterbacks. Offensively, Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis must be given enough time to check down and his receivers simply must bounce back from one of the unit's worst performances in recent memory.

Unfortunately Duke will be playing in a hostile environment without the benefit of two of the team's most experience receivers - Austin Kelly and Raphael Chestnut. In their place will be freshman speedsters Johnny Williams and Donovan Varner - it certainly changes the focus of the passing game, but will the lack of experience be too much? We'll find out on Saturday afternoon.

Predicted Final Score:
Duke - 17
Vanderbilt - 23

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