Lewis was definitely struggling early in the year and the fans were definitely clamoring for a change. Finally, coach Cutcliffe had to tell everyone that Lewis battled an ankle injury and the swine flu this preseason, which limited him to only a handful of preseason practices. Even seniors need practice to get their timing down. The NC Central game is exactly what Duke needed at that stage of the season. The entire team had been out of sync up to that point.
Along with Lewis, over half the team missed a week of preseason practice due to the swine flu. The Central game allowed Duke a chance to iron the offensive and defensive schemes out, and gave Lewis and other a chance to get game reps to work on timing. As the almost 400 yards gained and 26 points against Tech showed, the offense is starting to play better. Now the question becomes, can they get it down for a third week in a row.
What can NC State expect to see from Duke defensively?
The Duke defense plays a base 4-3 with strong-side/weak-side designations. They do not have a signature base coverage scheme (like the Tampa-2). They mix man-2, cover-2 zone, and man-free depending on the down, distance and the play called. Duke will blitz on occasion, but mostly try and generate pressure with their four down linemen.
The guy to watch on Duke's defensive front is senior Vince Oghobaase. So far this season, he's been the ACC's best defensive tackle. Teams have had no luck whatsoever trying to block him with one guy. Virginia Tech doubled him on every play and he still was routinely getting into the backfield.
Don't listen to the talk radio analysis of the game, Duke was not stacking the box against Tech. The Devils' front seven was just getting it done against the run. State will be better served attacking the edges with the run and throwing the ball downfield to exploit size mismatches.
Are there any major players injured for the Devils?
Duke will be relatively healthy going into Saturday's game. Oghobaase missed games against Kansas and NC Central with a leg injury but looked like an All-American against Tech. The one position Duke has not been healthy has been running back. Senior starter Re'quan Boyette and top reserve Jay Hollingsworth have both been banged up all year.
The guy to watch is true freshman Desmond Scott. He is the most talented of the backs, but does not have much game experience. He also has been battling a leg injury for two weeks now. The other back, Patrick Kurunwune is a power runner, but is not overly fast. Duke has not run the ball well at all this season, and injuries to their top backs have been one of the primary reasons why.
Last year's game seemed to have been won in the trenches. What's Duke's situation on the offensive line?
The offensive line was terrible for the first three weeks of the season, but has quietly improved their play over the last two. State's defensive line clearly has the advantage, but unlike last year, Duke might be able to offer some resistance this time around. Virginia Tech thrives on creating havoc with their defensive front, but the Hokies were forced to blitz to create pressure as the Duke line was getting the defensive front blocked.
The Devils will surely have their hands full with Willie Young and company, but there were certainly signs of encouragement last week. The key to the game will be Duke's ability to run the football well enough to make the State defense respect it. That will slow the rush down and open up play-action.
The Devils are posting gaudy passing statistics. Do they do it more so with a
short-passing attack or do they like to pass a lot vertically? Also who are some of
the top targets to look out for and what do they bring to the table?
The David Cutcliffe system is designed to take what the defensive gives. The Devils graduated their top receiver from last year, who was the clear "go-to-guy" in Eron Riley. This is a good and bad thing. On the bad side, Thad Lewis doesn't have that one guy he can rely on for big plays. On the good side, it makes Duke more difficult to defend. Four receivers on the team have at least 15 catches and 240 yards receiving through five games.
In the Virginia Tech contest, nine different players caught passes.The distribution to the top four receivers is relatively equal. Junior Austin Kelly leads the team with 25 catches. Freshman Connor Vernon leads the team in yards per catch (17 YPC), and slot man Donovan Varner leads the receivers with four touchdown receptions. None of these guys have elite speed, but all can run and can beat you deep with each having a reception this season longer than 50 yards.
With State's turmoil in the defensive backfield, this might be the greatest matchup advantage Duke will enjoy this Saturday.
What concerns you the most about this game?
On offense, the battle up front is of great concern. State leads the conference in sacks. Were it not for Duke's offensive emphasis on sack avoidance, Duke would probably be last in the conference in sacks allowed. Thad Lewis gets hit quite a bit. Sure the Devils have a capable backup in Sean Renfree, but I would rather not see him come in because of injury to the starter.
State's best chance of disrupting Duke's passing game comes in their ability to get pressure without blitzing. Tech did not get consistent pressure out of their front four. Some of Duke's biggest plays came when Tech blitzed. Defensively, the biggest concern its State's big receivers against Duke's defensive backs. Tyrod Taylor lit Duke up through the air last week. It was not a coverage issue. The Devils had the receivers covered. The problem is not only do you have to be there to make a play, you then also have to actually make a play on the ball. The Tech receivers were just able to out-compete the Blue Devils for the long balls.
Some of that was just Tyrod Taylor making great throws. A few of the passes should have been knocked down but were not. Duke should be able to slow down the State running game and force some third-and-long situations. I, however, am not confident in Duke's ability to get off the field in those situations.
Russell Wilson is a very good QB, and I know State watches game film. Expect Wilson to air it out early and often to see if they State can get some early big plays with the deep pass.
How is Duke's special teams?
Duke's special teams have been nothing to write home about so far. There have been moments of great play followed by other moments of putridity. Last week for example, Duke did not get any punts blocked, gave up no big returns and was perfect on placekicks. Considering the opponent, that is quite an accomplishment.
All of that great effort was counteracted by not one but two kickoffs out of bounds. Duke has been spotty on kickoff coverage and field goal kicking. The only consistent positive I've seen out of the Duke special teams has been punt coverage. They've done a great job in that phase.
Duke uses their receivers in the return game. Johnny Williams has done a credible job returning punts and Connor Vernon has done a great job on kickoff returns. Neither guy is a game-changer, but they are dependable.