Duke Primed To Deliver Knockout Blow To Eagles’ Season

The upstart has already lasted a few rounds with the defending champ. Face bloodied and nose broken, he fights on, even though he can barely see a thing. A conservative strategy focused on max protection has enabled him to last this long, but no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t avoid the rapid flurry of blows. Finally, his guard slips and the champ connects with a thunderous uppercut to the temple. Crumpling to the floor, the upstart finally succumbs to his deteriorated state, no amount of grit able to overcome the sheer talent of the champ.

This may be a slightly depressing image, but this scenario is the most likely outcome for Saturday’s upcoming game between Boston College (3-1, 0-1 ACC) and Duke University (3-1, 1-0 ACC). Missing Darius Wade, Jonathan Hilliman, and a slew of others, the Eagles limp into their first road game searching for some way to grind out wins against more talented and healthier teams.

Right now, Duke might just be the worst team for BC to face.

For the first time in head coach David Cutcliffe’s eight-year tenure in Durham, N.C., the Blue Devils have pieced together a rugged, aggressive front-seven that is highly adept at stuffing the run.

Last season, Cutcliffe had established his preferred defensive mindset. Duke allowed a little over 20 points per game in a 9-4 2014 campaign, a significant improvement over the disastrous 36 points per game it allowed just two years prior. Amid this transformation, the run defense remained porous, allowing 196.3 yards per game. The Blue Devils are allowing just 113.3 yards per game on the ground this season.

That number doesn’t even tell the full story, as it is inflated by Georgia Tech’s 180 rushing yards in Duke’s 34-20 victory against the Yellow Jackets last weekend. For the season, Duke has allowed just 2.76 yards per carry, including holding run-heavy GT to just under three yards per carry on a whopping 60 rushing attempts. Nearly 25 percent of GT rushes were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. As BC head coach Steve Addazio bluntly put it in Monday’s press conference, “When you stuff Georgia Tech’s running game, you’re doing pretty well.”

The underrated part of Duke’s performance comes from recognizing how hard it is to corral a triple-option rushing game. GT has a physical offensive line and numerous athletes in the backfield, not to mention the inherent deception that the scheme poses. The defensive discipline and physicality at the line of scrimmage that Duke used to beat GT are hallmarks of a top-10 defense. Nose tackle Carlos Wray leads the way by controlling the middle of the offensive line, with linebacker Jeremy Cash contributing as a tireless tackler, including 12 last Saturday. Duke’s defense excels at getting pressure with limited blitzing, which allows its veteran secondary to remain back in coverage.

As a result, Duke also ranks 14th in passing yards allowed per game. And despite playing two ranked opponents already, Duke ranks fifth nationally in allowing just 0.68 points per drive. Opponents have only had five red zone trips against Duke across four games, and the Blue Devils have held the opposition to a miniscule 20.9 percent conversion rate on third down, fifth-best in the FBS.

On Saturday, look for Duke’s defense to toe the line between aggressively playing the run and openly disrespecting BC’s new quarterbacking tandem of Troy Flutie and Jeff Smith. In BC’s more methodical and predictable run offense, look for Duke’s front-seven to hold the Eagles to virtually no gain on first and second down. As a result, expect BC to face many third-and-long plays, where Duke’s secondary can play tight man coverage on the BC receivers and force the inexperienced QBs to throw into tight windows. The aggressive gameplan should mute BC’s run game and give Duke the potential to give its offense short fields after turnovers.

That being said, the Duke offense could use some help from the defense. Duke runs an offense primarily oriented around the ground game, an attack with heavy doses of read option plays. Junior QB Thomas Sirk is the team’s leading rusher, with 267 yards. Possessing a strong, 6-foot-4 and 220-lb frame, Sirk can handle the physical load of driving the run game. Shaquille Powell and Shaun Wilson have each tallied over 180 total rushing yards, providing Cutcliffe with a dynamic one-two punch to complement the bruising Sirk. The run game has explosive capabilities and runs behind a very strong offensive line, which has allowed just two sacks this season.

For Duke, the ideal gameplan revolves around minimizing its passing game. Though Sirk is a veteran, he hasn’t exactly been dynamic as a passer this season, throwing six TDs to three interceptions and averaging a pedestrian 6.89 yards per attempt. The short passing attack appears to offer equal opportunity, with five receivers registering between 12 and 17 receptions, including both Powell and Wilson, who are constantly involved through a stream of screens and check downs. Facing a dominant BC defense, look for Duke to remain committed to the ground game, staying confident in its offensive line’s ability to open running lanes.

Look for the threat of Sirk running to be leveraged into opening holes in the BC defense for Powell and Wilson. Controlling the ball and limiting turnovers should be Duke’s top priority, as a risky offense will almost certainly not be needed to outscore the anemic Eagles’ offense. Sirk figures to stick to the short passing game, but given the offensive line’s strength, he should challenge the BC secondary with some surprise deep passes off play-action. Connecting on a long pass could prove to be the knockout blow that sends the scrappy underdog staggering to the mat, putting him out of his misery.

Featured Image by Rob Brown / AP Photo