Each game, we'll get the inside look at Virginia Tech's opponent by talking with the opposing team's beat writer. This week, we spoke with DevilsIllustrated.com publisher Brian McLawhorn to get the inside look at Duke.
1) How much of a surprise is Duke's play?
McLawhorn: I think as expected, it's a surprise, but particularly early in the year. They looked great in the season opener, but it was against Florida International. They'd had some success last year and had some high expectations. It kinda felt like, 'Ok, they played well' and then they go to Stanford and get embarrassed out there. At that point, you say, this Duke team isn't much different than a has-been.
Then, Duke started winning again and that success, the way they were winning the games, you started to realize that maybe we shouldn't be surprised by this. It's the same offense we saw last season. Coach David Cutcliffe said all summer long that his team had the best spring that he had since he's been at Duke. I know a lot of that comes across as coach-speak, but we're starting to see that he wasn't feeding us propoganda there. It's certainly surprising, but this team is talented.
Offensively, they've got a lot of key players and defensively, they've got some veteran guys that got all their bumps and bruises out of the way last year as freshmen and sophomores. It's certainly surprising to be 5-1 but to see them have success, we were definitely not giving them the credit they deserved.
2) We'd seen this week that quarterback Sean Renfree is a little banged up. What's his status?
McLawhorn: Right now, that's still all we know, that he's probable. It's probably gonna be a game-time decision whether he starts or not. He did suffer an injury to his (throwing) arm during the Wake Forest game. He was sacked in the middle of throwing the football and went out at that point.
That's hindered him quite a bit. He didn't play last week. Anthony Boone started and played the entire game in his absence. Right now, Cutcliffe is playing that one close to his vest about whether or not he'll play or start. This past week in practice, he was getting some reps early in the week. Tuesday, he practiced for the first time and they were gonna re-evaluate him on Wednesday. They didn't give any updates on how he was after that first practice. I'm guessing he's holding up pretty strong if they're listing him as probable. But he was gonna split reps in practice with Boone. They were gonna get an equal number of reps and Cutcliffe was gonna make a decision on who would start this weekend, I'm guessing today or tomorrow, but they won't release that information.
3) Aside from Conner Vernon, the wide receivers seem pretty even. Is he still the clear standout?
McLawhorn: Vernon just broke the all-time ACC record for receptions last week. He's a legitimate pro prospect and has over 235 career receptions and he's a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Virginia Tech is well aware of Vernon and what he can do on the field. The thing there is that even though Conner is the key guy, it's hard to single him out because Jamison Crowder has arrived as a big-time player. Even Desmond Scott as of late there at wide receiver, but Crowder is just as dangerous.
Over the summer during ACC media days, Vernon welcomed opponents to focus on him because he said that knew how good Crowder is. He's just begging teams to double-team him because he knows Crowder can make big plays. Some teams have already made that mistake, to double Vernon and give Crowder room to make plays. Vernon's the type of player that he's gonna make plays whether you're double-teaming him or not. He just has that knack to find the football and rarely drops a pass in his area. He's not a big receiver, but he has deceptively fast legs.
4) We haven't heard a lot about the Duke defense but what's the key on that side of the ball?
McLawhorn: It's really hard to say, just consistency with these guys and their ability to work. In the past, that's always been Duke's problem, that they take a punch and they don't know how to bounce back and they throw their hands down. That's not there anymore. They feel like they're good, they feel like they can compete with anybody and they fight through games. It's evident in every game they've been in the last few weeks. Teams have tried to throw a punch back at them and they just do a good job bouncing back.
The second half has been a key, as they've made monster adjustments. That's where they really show their strength. It's their conditioning and from a football standpoint, they're starting to get pressure in the backfield. They haven;t been able to do that in a long time. Now you have a four-man front that can get to the quarterback and pressure on him, maybe not sack him, but hurry him up. That's allowed the defensive backs to do their job.
5) Does Duke feel like it has Virginia Tech in a favorable spot
McLawhorn: I don't know if I'd say they feel like they have them in a good position. I don't think Duke approaches things that way and if they do, they don't put that vibe outward. They keep that close.
These guys, from a Duke standpoint, regardless of what Virginia Tech is doing, they feel confident that they can play with anybody right now. They're confident they can go on the road and win against a team like Virginia Tech. They feel like they're playing consistent and on top of their game. No matter who they're playing, they feel like they can compete and win games. Cutcliffe sees them as the same Virginia Tech team they've seen. The talent is there.
Prediction: Anytime you've got a guy like Logan Thomas, whether he's struggling or not, there's things you can worry about. I think if Duke can hold their poise in that atmosphere, they'll have a shot to pull out the upset, if you wanna call it that. This team has a different swagger than those teams they've put against Tech. I don't wanna say Duke's gonna win this thing, but I don't know who's gonna win this game. I think there will be about a seven-point difference between the two, playing in the high 20s, low 30s and it will come down to the fourth quarter. I think Duke can win, but Virginia Tech is in a desperation mode and I think that might show through and edge Duke in the end.