Schedule Preview: Duke

The Duke Blue Devils will make the short drive over to Kenan Stadium earlier than normal this fall, arriving in Chapel Hill for their annual showdown with archrival North Carolina on Nov. 7.

Overview: David Cutcliffe's first season in Durham started with plenty of hope, as a 3-1 mark could have easily been 4-0 after a tough 24-20 loss to Northwestern in Week 2. But a 27-0 throttling by Georgia Tech spelled the beginning of the end for the Blue Devils, losing seven of their final eight games to post a 4-8 (1-7 ACC) record. But while there's optimism that Cutcliffe is improving this habitual cellar-dwelling program, 2009 has the makings of a downward turn after absorbing substantial losses from last season's squad.

Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (224-of-361 passing, 2,171 yards, 15 TD, 6 INT) is the obvious bright spot heading into his fourth year as Duke's starting quarterback, fresh off second team All-ACC honors in ‘08. His top target in Erron Riley (61 catches, 693 yards, 8 TD) is one of five offensive starters gone from last season, leaving sophomore Johnny Williams (30 catches, 327 yards) and junior Brett Huffman (14 catches, 171 yards, 1 TD) to help try to improve Duke's passing attack (197.7 ypg – 75th nationally in ‘08).

The backfield gets a boost with the return of Re'Quan Boyette (432 yards in ‘07) in addition to leading returning rusher Jay Hollingsworth (399 yards, 1 TD), although losing three three-year starting offensive linemen (LT Cameron Goldberg, RG Rob Schirmann and RT Fred Roland) will make it difficult to improve on last season's 103rd-ranked ground game (106.2 ypg).

It may come as a surprise that Duke's defense allowed just 23.4 points per game (50th nationally) last fall, bolstered by top-45 rankings in tackles for loss (6.7 – 27th), turnover margin (plus-0.42 – 33rd) and sacks (2.2 – 45th). A decent combination of pass (205.4 ypg – 56th) and rush (151.5 ypg – 74th) defenses kept the Blue Devils in a handful of games last season, losing five games by 11 points or less. But that defense will have to undergo major reconstruction in '09 as only five starters and a handful of backups return.

All-ACC linebacker Mike Tauiliili and his 140 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss are preparing for the Indianapolis Colts' NFL season, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the defense. Defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase (51 tkl, 6 sacks) and weakside linebacker Vincent Rey (109 tackles, 8.5 tfl) are All-ACC caliber talents, but there's slim pickings surrounding the pair of senior standouts. Senior free safety Carton Gainey (66 tkl) anchors an inexperienced secondary. Former quarterback Zack Asack was battling for the starting strong safety spot before being booted from the team in May for a violation of team policy.

Freshman Watch List: Desmond Scott. Rarely does elite level talent arrive in Durham to play football, as five-star defensive tackle Oghobaase and four-star quarterback Sean Renfree are atypical examples that shook the recruiting world when they committed to the Blue Devils in recent years. Add Scott to that list. The Durham (N.C.) Hillside product originally committed to Rutgers over offers from Tennessee, West Virginia, Clemson and Virginia before opting to sign with his hometown school. Scout.com ranked the four-star standout as the No. 30 running back in the '09 recruiting class.

Interesting Fact: Duke has won just four ACC games in the past nine seasons, which includes six 0-8 conference records. The Blue Devils have also lost 20 straight conference road contests.

Key Game: At Virginia on Oct. 31. While a bowl game is a definite long shot for the Blue Devils in '09, if things fall perfectly they could potentially post nonconference victories against FCS opponents Richmond and N.C. Central, as well as Army. That leaves three wins needed against conference foes, and home games against Maryland and Wake Forest are possible options. The difficulty is finding that sixth and final win, and the road trip to Charlottesville to face a Cavalier team boasting just 12 returning starters from a 5-7 squad in '08 may present the best opportunity.

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5   Richmond 
Sept. 12  @ Army
Sept. 19  @ Kansas
Sept. 26  N.C. Central
Oct. 3    Virginia Tech
Oct. 10   @ N.C. State
Oct. 24   Maryland
Oct. 31   @ Virginia
Nov. 7    @ North Carolina
Nov. 14   Georgia Tech
Nov. 21   @ Miami (Fla.)
Nov. 28   Wake Forest
 

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