Preview: Duke (1-2) v. NC Central (0-3)

After struggling against one of the nation's best offensive teams last week in Lawrence, the Blue Devils return home to face North Carolina Central in the first meeting between the two programs. TDD previews the match-up.

Duke (1-2) vs N.C. Central (0-3)
Durham, N.C. - Wallace Wade Stadium
TV: N/A / Kick-off: 7:00 PM EST

Program Vitals
Conference:  Independent 
Nickname:  Eagles
Colors: Maroon & Silver 
Head Coach:  Mose Rison (3rd season)
Career Record at NC Central: 10-14

For the first time NC Central and Duke will meet on the gridiron in what is being called the "Bull City Classic". In addition, this weekend's game will serve as Homecoming 2009 for the Blue Devils.

Last Time:
The two schools have never met on the gridiron. However the Eagles have played in Wallace Wade Stadium on three occasions, posting a 2-1 overall record on Duke's home field. The last time the Eagles were on the field they defeated North Carolina A&T by a score of 29-18 during the 1974 season.

Duke has an all-time record of 42-35-3 when playing a team for the first time. .

What To Watch For On Offense:
The Eagles' offensive unit has been largely ineffective through the first three contests of the season - averaging just 14.7 points per game. Some if it due to inexperience with several younger players being forced into action. Two positions were opened for in preseason drills when junior wide receiver Corey Harris dislocated his left clavicle. Soon after, senior offensive lineman Eric Stanley suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee. Both required season-ending surgery.

In regards to the season-ending injury to Harris, Rison said, "We are going to have to count on some freshmen to play for us. Someone else is going to have to step up to fill that void at the receiver position." Rison added about Stanley's injury, "Eric has worked extremely hard in his preparations for this season and had a great fall camp. He will have a chance to come back next season, but this is a significant loss for our offensive line."

So far the offense has struggled to replace the two players. Second year quarterback Michael Johnson has been solid, completing 46-of-84 passes for four scores against four interceptions. At 6'2 and 230lbs, Johnson doesn't seem to have durability issues, and has shown the ability to throw the ball down field (completing a long of 45 this season). However, he prefers to look at seven to eight yard completions before allowing his receivers to try and gain extra yardage. So far he's averaging around 5.6 yards per pass attempt and 10.3 yards per completion. Those numbers are eerily similar to those of the Duke passing game which averages 10.2 yards per catch and 5.6 yards per pass. Of the four quarterbacks the Blue Devils will have faced so far this season, Johnson is the least likely to take off and pick up big yardage on broken plays via scramble.

Central's top running back, junior Tim Shankle (5'10, 221) leads the team with 222 rushing yards on the season. Shankle is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 74 yards per game for the Eagles and has shown the ability to break away along with exceptional durability. Against Morehead State, Shankle broke through the line of scrimmage and took off on a long touchdown run. Unfortunately the play was called back for holding. Not only did it negate a score, it also negated the junior's first 100 yard rushing afternoon of the season. Instead he finished with 83 yards on 18 carries. For the season Shankle's longest run has been a 39 yarder. However, he has yet to find the endzone this season. That's a common theme amongst the Eagle offense as only Johnson has found the endzone on the ground.

The loss of Harris in the receiving group has put more pressure on senior wideout Will Scott (6'3, 185), the FCS Independent Preseason Offensive Player of the Year and member of the FCS All-Independent team according to Phil Steele's publication. So far the fourth year player has been up to the task, leading the team with 13 catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns. For Scott it's about picking up where he left off a season ago when he led the team with 45 catches for 787 yards and five scores.

"Will Scott could be one of the most explosive receivers in the country," said NCCU football head coach Mose Rison. "He has great speed and can run past people. I look for him to have an outstanding senior year."

That speed has already been on display as Rison and his staff look to get the senior more involved with the offense. Already Scott has participated in a couple of reverse runs that have resulted in 57 yards of offense (on two plays) including a 48 yard run. The other wideout likely to garner some attention from Duke lacks Scott's size, but not the speed. Geovonie Irvine (5'7, 150) has given opponents' defenses trouble with his speed and illusiveness - recording 13 catches for 175 yards and two touchdowns this season. Most of those stats came against Morehead State where the second year player hauled in eight catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.

The offensive line has been steady so far with two All-Independent members returning in the form of C James Fyre - a center built like a bulldozer at 6'3 and 325 pounds along with left tackle Gabriel Manns (6'2, 320). The Eagles start a true freshman, Joseph Figueroa (6', 275) at right guard while junior Timothy Charity (6'0, 286) is the right guard. Right tackle is managed by second year player Alex Johnson (6'2, 277). Through three games the Eagles have surrendered just six sacks.

What has really hurt the NC Central offense as a whole has been slopping play and turnovers. Through three games the Eagles have fumbled the ball eight times - losing possession five times. In addition the Eagles have thrown the ball away for interceptions three times.

What To Watch For On Defense:
The Eagle defense is probably the more advanced of the two units to this point in the season. With an offense that's unable to generate a ton of points, the defense has been left on the field for long stretches. This contributes to wear and tear which has allowed the three opponents to score 55 points in three games after halftime.

Like the offense, the defense has several players who have been honored by the various publications which follow the FCS Independent schools. Defensive linemen Sam Battle and Teryl White were both tabbed by Steele as worth of preseason honors. White was actually named as the FCS Preseason Independent Defensive Player of the Year. White, a 6-5, 278-pound junior from Winston-Salem, N.C., led the Eagles with 11.0 tackles for a loss, including 3.0 sacks, and topped all linemen with 55 total takedowns. "A lot of school's missed out of Teryl White," Rison said. "He is athletic and can run. Teryl had an outstanding spring practice season and I think he is going to have a great year." Joining White in the early honors was fellow lineman Sam Battle (5'11, 268) who recorded 22 tackels and three sacks a year ago.

The Eagles were well represented outside of the trenches as well as linebacker Donald Laster and defensive backs Jeffrey Henderson and David Ingram were also named to various preseason all-conference teams. A season ago Laster was seventh on the team with 40 tackles and 6.0 sacks. Meanwhile Henderson was second of the team in stops with 56. Ingram led the team with four interceptions a season ago. So far this season, Laster is leading the team in stops with 25 through three games. On top of that he's recorded 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.0 sacks. White has recorded 18 total tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks - both team highs. Ingram has recorded a pair of interceptions to go along with four pass breakups.

Overall the defensive unit has combined to allow 26.3 points per game while giving up a respectable 273.0 yards per contest. Opponents are having some success running against the Eagles (153.7 yards per game), but passing has be contained (119.7/game).

Fearless Prediction(s):
This is a game where Duke simply should win. NC Central is coming off a loss to a program that doesn't offer football scholarships. At home. Meanwhile Duke has played one of the nation's best offenses and has shown flashes of being able to compete at that level. Even with several Blue Devils taking time off this week to heal injuries, there is simply no excuse for Duke not to come in and take control of this game early. Several new players will likely see the field. Perhaps the coaching staff will have a chance to work on new plays and new looks. Perhaps some players who need a confidence boost will get some extra snaps. Either way, the outcome of this game should be decided by the end of the first quarter. If this turns into a tight contest and the Blue Devils find themselves in a battle it could spell disaster in both the short and long term scenarios.

Predicted Final Score:

Duke - 45
NC Central - 10

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