Duke (0-0) vs Elon(0-0)
Durham, N.C. - Wallace Wade Stadium
TV: N/A / Kick-off: 7:00 PM EST
Program Vitals Conference: Southern Nickname: Phoenix Colors: Maroon & Gold Head Coach: Pete Lembo (4th season) Career Record at Elon: 29-17
The Blue Devils and Phoenix have met seven times on the grid iron with Duke holding an undefeated mark in the series at 6-0-1. However, it's the first time in 78 years the two programs have met . Duke will be just the third FBS opponent the Phoenix have face. The other two times Elon faced an opponent from the bowl series were in 2007 (a 28-13 loss to South Florida) and 2009 (a 35-7 defeat to Wake Forest.)
Much like Richmond a season ago, the Phoenix come into Wallace Wade unafraid and knowing how to win. The 2009 season saw Elon post its third consecutive winning season and the most wins (9) for the program in a decade. Under Coach Lembo the Phoenix are 2-2 in season openers.
What To Watch For On Offense:
Elon enters Saturday's game as one of the top offenses in the FCS division. The Phoenix rated sixth in the country a year ago in total passing offense, averaging just under 292 yards per game. They complemented that with a ground attack that averaged just over 133 yards a game to leave Elon with the nation's 11th most potent offense at 424.92 yards per contest. Much like any good offensive unit, the Phoenix could execute when they got into the red zone as well, and averaged 30.4 points per game. Since Coach Lembo took over the program, the Phoenix have yet to be held scoreless and have averaged just over 29 points per game.
Much like the Blue Devils, the Phoenix put a heavy emphasis on the passing game under the direction of senior quarterback Scott Riddle. Riddle needs just 359 passing yards to become the Southern Conference's all-time leader and he's capable of getting those 359 yards in one game having thrown for more than 300 yards a conference record 17 times in his career. In each of his first three seasons at Elon, Riddle has led the conference in passing, making him on the second player in the conference's history to do so. It all adds up to a player who has been named to the preseason watch list for the Walter Payton Award which is presented to the FCS' top offensive player.
In a non-football note, Riddle will be celebrating his 22nd birthday on Saturday in Wallace Wade.
While the initial worry of any defense will center around the Phoenix passing attack, there is also the concern of the running game which racked up more than 133 yards per contest a season ago. It starts with tailbacks Brandon Newsome and A.J. Harris. The duo combined for just over 80 yards per game a season ago while splitting time with the team's leading rusher, Jamal Shuman. Both players measure out approximately at 6 feet and just over 200 pounds and are adept at getting shore yardage between the tackles, though each can break outside and take off. Newsome was the red zone back a season ago, netting seven touchdowns. Harris is the better receiver out of the backfield and actually was third on the team a season ago with 28 catches for 268 yards.
The receiving corps return three of the top four players from a season ago. Of course the one loss, Terrell Hudgins, was a big one as he recorded a team high 123 catches for 1633 yards and 16 touchdowns - more than the rest of the starting team combined. The returning group is led by senior Lance Camp who was the team's second leading receiver in 2009 with 45 catches for 585 yards. Joining Camp will be classmate Sean Jeffcoat (27 catches for 366 yards and three touchdowns in 2009) and Aaron Mellette (8/117).
The offensive line is big and experienced along the first team with the five players averaging 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds. Only center Clay Johnson - a red shirt freshman - is an underclassman with the remaining four players - consisting of juniors Ned Cuthbertson and Rodney Austin on the right side and seniors John Rubertone and Corey O'Shea on the left. The tight ends don't figure into the passing game in great numbers with returning junior Andre Labinowicz making just one catch a game a season ago.
What To Watch For On Defense:
While the offense got most of the publicity, it was the Phoenix defense that propelled Elon towards the top of the polls a season ago. In all the defense finished the season ranked fourth in the country in total defense, allowing just under 249 yards per game. The Phoenix also ranked in the top 10 nationally in categories such as scoring defense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense, and sacks.
Up front the Phoenix return 6'6 senior defensive end Brandon Ward who appeared in all 12 games - starting 10 - a season ago on his way to recording 42 tackles including 10.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Joining Ward on the opposite side of the starting front four will be redshirt freshman Jordan Jones who measures out at 6'1 and 240 pounds. On the inside the Phoenix return tackles Jordan Gibson (6'3, 264, Sr.) and Khirey Walker (6'0, 285, Jr.). Walker appeared in all 12 games in 2009 as a reserve while Gibson saw action in nine contests including one start. The top DL reserve is senior David Hunt who appeared in 11 games a season ago - making 10 starts at nose guard.
If there is uncertainty in terms of experience in the middle of the defensive line, there is enough experience in the second wave of defense to make up for it. At middle linebacker the Phoenix return the team's leading tackler, sophomore Joshua Jones. A season ago Jones recorded 89 stops, 7.0 tackles for loss, and 2.0 sacks. He also recorded a pair of interceptions as a true freshman. On the outside Elon returns senior Brandon Wiggins who started 11 games a season ago along with Travis Green who appeared in 11 contests with one start. Wiggins was the team's third leading tackler with 71 stops and three tackles for loss.
On paper the defensive backfield is the biggest question mark for Phoenix in terms of experience. Only senior Terell Wilson is an upperclassman. A season ago Wilson appeared in 11 games and earned 10 starts. During that time he recorded three interceptions and added six pass breakups . Sophomore Dale Riley was the second big name true freshman to make an impact a season ago at the strong safety slot where he started all 12 games and finished as the team's second leading tackler behind Jones with 75 stops and 1.5 sacks. The other half of the defensive backfield, however, isn't' as long on experience. Free safety Blake Thompson saw action in 11 games and earned one start, but managed just one stop per game in that time while cornerback Ronnie Hardison was redshirted.
In addition to being a record setting quarterback, the Phoenix maximize Riddle in the kicking game where he led the team in punting a season ago with a 39.5 average that included four punts of 50 yards or greater. When it comes to field goals Elon reutnrs Adam Shreiner who connected in 74 percent of his kicks last year and was 7-of-11 from 30 yards and out with a long of 43 yards.
A season ago the Blue Devils entered the season with high hopes and favored against a team from the FCS division. In that game the Richmond Spiders were sharper and handed Duke a crippling loss. Certainly Duke rebounded well and managed to win five games, but had the Blue Devils come out and executed enough to beat the Spiders, they would have been bowl eligible. It was a lesson the team learned the hard way and one that will no doubt linger until the opening kick off Saturday. As has been proven routinely over the past few seasons in college football, the FCS teams can play and execute well enough to get positive results against their FBS counterparts.
On Saturday the Blue Devils have a number of questions to answer regardless of the opponent. A new quarterback, a new defensive scheme, and several new starters in place with some positions housing more talented, but unproven players. Duke certainly has the fire power to match the Phoenix score for score in the passing game, but the Blue Devils will need to look to establish a running game that was ineffective in 2009. Defensively the Blue Devils will be implementing a new 3-4 system that puts a premium on speed, which has been recruited in droves. Facing an experienced quarterback like Riddle will likely punish Duke for any mistakes.
In the end this is a game Duke is favored to win and one the Blue Devils should win. On paper at least. Look for the Blue Devils to come out flying high and take a lead into halftime. The Phoenix are going to score, and this game will be decided in the battle of the turnovers. Duke has more playmakers on the defensive side of the ball and should pull away in the late third and early fourth quarters to open the season in style.
Predicted Final Score:
Duke - 27
Elon - 14