Preview: Duke (0-0) v. Richmond (0-0)

The wait is finally over. The Blue Devils kick-off the long awaited 2009 season on Saturday evening in Durham against the Richmond Spiders. Last year's FCS National Champion, the Spiders have experience in Wallace Wade Stadium after defeating the Blue Devils 13-0 three years ago in the 2006 season opener. TDD Previews the match-up.

Duke (0-0) vs Richmond (0-0)
Durham, N.C. - Wallace Wade Stadium
TV: None / Kick-off: 7:00 PM EST

Program Vitals
Conference:  CAA
Nickname:  Spiders
Colors: Red, White, Blue 
Head Coach:  Mike London (2nd season)
Career Record at Richmond: 13-3

Both teams enter Saturday's game looking to start the season with a victory. Winning would just be a case of picking up where they left off a season ago for the Spiders, who won their last nine games in 2008 en route to the school's first FCS National Title. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils are looking to reverse the trend of the later half of the 2008 season which saw Duke fall in the final five games.

Last Time:
Duke fans should remember the Spiders well after the 2006 season which saw Richmond come into Wallace Wade Stadium and dominate the game defensively, shutting out the Blue Devils 13-0. In that game the Spiders were able to win the battles in the trenches, holding Duke to just 210 total yards of offense including a paltry 51 yards on the ground. Much of the issues for Duke began with turnovers as the team fumbled the ball three times, losing two. Things got worse when unimaginatively and ultra conservative play calling left the Blue Devils in several third and long situations which resulted in converting just three of 14 attempts on third down.

What To Watch For On Offense:
Senior quarterback Eric Ward - a preseason FCS All-American who is considered as the best pro-prospect throughout the FCS division. Ward has produced victories in 13 of his 18 starts against top 25 opponents, while completing just shy of 64 percent of his passes. In those games he's been a big presence for Richmond, throwing 24 touchdowns compared to just eight interceptions. This will be Ward's fourth season under center for the Spiders, and he'll be looking to duplicate his performance in 2006 when he helped his team win in Wallace Wade during his first career start.

Like most good quarterbacks, Ward enjoys superb protection from his offensive line. After allowing their signal caller enough time to pick apart defenses throughout the 2008 title run, the Spiders are fortunate enough to return a four of the five starters including the team's captain, LG Matt McCracken. McCracken, a 6'3, 300 pounder, is a two-time FCS All-American and has anchored the inside left position for 37 consecutive starts. Overall the Spider line enjoys FBS quality size, averaging 6-foot-4, and 295 pounds between the five starters. Likewise, the other players have also earned preseason honors including all-American senior right tackle Michael Silva. The only non-returning starter is at center where junior Drew Lachenmayer takes over. While the 6'2, 286 pound Lachenmayer lacks the experience of a starter, the FCS media thinks highly enough of him to have bestowed preseason all-American honors. All told, the offensive line has combined for 138 starts over the previous four seasons led by fifth year senior Jared Decker who has started every game, save one, of his three seasons played.

That the offensive line will be able to protect Ward is a given. However, the Spider running game will need to lean on the experience as well. While the program has produced back-to-back NFL running backs (Tim Hightower to Arizona & Josh Vaughn to Jacksonville) over the past two years, this season the Spiders are changing things up. Both Hightower and Vaughn were almost fullbacks in stature and running style - preferring to meet contact and then break away. This season, the team is turning towards a smaller, speedier model in the form of senior Justin Forte and sophomore Garrett Wilkins. Forte has averaged 6.6 yards per carry over the course of his 80 carry career, while Wilkins was the only true freshman to see time for the Spiders during 2008. Both players are explosive speed backs who will look to dark outside, but can run between the tackles when necessary. The big, bruising back role will be filled by former linebacker Ben Keating who, at 6', 220 pounds falls short of either of the departed backs' measurables -- illustrating just how much of a change in running philosophy the Spiders will undergo.

While running back is a position of relative uncertainty for the Spiders, the second half of the passing attack is certainly not. Richmond returns both of Ward's top receiving targets in the form of Kevin Grayson and Jordan Mitchell. A first team all-conference pick in 2008, the 6-fot-3 Grayson has become a favorite target of Ward's over the last two season, accounting for just over 1,800 yards and 10 scores. Meanwhile Mitchell, a 5'11, 190 pound senior, is the team's best deep play threat in the group, averaging just over 18 yards per reception last season including a career best 87 yard catch against Maine. Starting tight end William Bischoff will trade his spot duty role for that of full timer after making just two starts and recording two catches a season ago.

What To Watch For On Defense:
Throughout their title season the Spider defense earned the moniker of the "Stonewall Defense" with an annual performance that yielded strong statistical showings in nearly all the defensive categories. Chief among these was the school record 29 interceptions - part of 42 total turnovers forced which resulted in 159 points. Of those players who recorded a pick a season ago, all return in hopes of recreating that level of play on the defensive side of the ball.

The linebackers are led by conference preseason player of the year Eric McBride. The junior led the team in tackles a season ago with 108. Entering his third season, McBride has started in each of the team's 30 games. Joining McBride are Patrick Weldon and Colin McConaghy. The top reserve backer is redshirt junior Jordan Shoop. The trio combined to record 219 stops between them. Each player has shown the ability to stop the run and to ballhawk passes with Weldon recording three interceptions a season ago. Shoop added two of his own, while McConaghy added four pass breakups.

The defensive backfield features junior cornerback Justin Rogers - the team's leader with seven interceptions a season ago including three pick-sixes. Yet another FCS all-American, Rogers has morphed from a successful return specialist into one of the division's most dynamic players and is on the preseason watch list of the Buchanan Award - presented to the nation's best FCS defensive player. Opposite Rogers is 31 game starter David Horton, a 5'11 fifth year senior who has apparently beaten out classmate Seth Williams who is best known for his three interceptions against Appalachian State in the 2008 FCS play-offs.

The major question facing the Stonewall crew is how do the Spiders replace the pressure off the ends. Gone are Lawrence Sidbury (to the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth round) and Sherman Logan who combined to record just under half the team's recorded quarterback sacks (17.5 of 36) and 32.5 of the team's tackle for losses. In their place are Pierre Turner - a 6'2, 260 pound fifth year senior who recorded 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks in relief efforts. Less proven is the other end, Nicholas Battle who has never started a game, but has blocked two ticks and forced and then recovered a fumble last year in spot duty.

On the interior, the Spiders return both starters in NT Martin Parker and NG Parker Miles -- who have earned the unofficial nickname of "The Parker Brothers". The 6'3, 285lbs Martin Parker, another preseason All-American, recorded 8.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks a season ago. Meanwhile the 6'3, 276lbs Miles has started 18 straight games and finished sixth on the team in tackles in 2008.

Fearless Prediction(s):
Richmond comes into Wallace Wade knowing how to win football games. The Spiders' goals for 2009 focus on defending a national title, and that kind of experience is certainly invaluable. Three seasons ago they walked into Wallace Wade and handled the Blue Devils. They were better coached, more disciplined, and just a better football team. Luckily for Duke fans this group of Blue Devils bares very few, if any, traits of the team in 2006. This time Duke will have a clear advantage in terms of talent and speed. Richmond certainly has some horses, but the balance of power in that regard has tilted towards the hosts. In addition, the Blue Devils are no longer shocked to win football games. Nor are they over-confident thanks to Coach David Cutcliffe's efforts over the last 18 months. That was evident in last year's whipping of James Madison at Wallace Wade. If the Duke offensive line can handle the Spiders' defensive pressure up front, the Blue Devils should be able to move the ball and put points on the board. Defensively the linebackers and defensive backs will be tested by Ward. It'll be crucial for the defensive line to put pressure and hurry Ward enough to prevent him from throwing darts. In the end, Duke's depth and overall improvement since the last time these two teams met should be evident and the Blue Devils should walk away 1-0.

Predicted Final Score:

Duke - 26
Richmond - 10

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