December 4, 2013

Know Your Opponent: Duke Blue Devils

2013 Record: 10-2 (5-3 ACC)

Starters returning: 16 (7 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)

Breaking it down:

Let's just take a moment to process that Duke football has 10 wins in a season. Let that marinate for a while. Take a deep breath. Terrence Brooks needed an extra minute to do so too. When asked if he anticipated playing Duke in the ACC title game when he came to Florida State, Brooks paused.

"I anticipated playing in the ACC title game," Brooks said. "I didn't know who it would be against."

And to be honest, it still feels strange to be typing this: Duke has a legitimately good football team. The Blue Devils have emerged from the muddle of the ACC Coastal Division not by backing into the title, but by legitimately beating people. They toppled Miami and Virginia Tech and if not for a weird, 58-55 loss at Pittsburgh, Duke would have a rock-solid resume this season. Even with that head-scratcher it's still a pretty solid season.

Duke doesn't really have a standout part of its game. The Blue Devils instead have been able to adapt to a variety of different styles - they ground out a 13-10 win against Virginia Tech and then two weeks later out-scored Miami 48-30. And the Blue Devils don't really stand out statistically either way - no glaring shortcomings and no jump-off-the-page strong suits.

What Duke has been able to do this season is win football games, and win close ones. Half of Duke's eight-game winning streak was decided by a touchdown or less - a polar opposite from FSU's dominance through the season.

And while Duke is a four-touchdown underdog to No. 1 FSU, the Blue Devils have shown the ability to come up with key plays every time they've needed them. Will that be enough to put a dent in the Seminole Juggernaut? Probably not. But it is likely to make for an entertaining evening in Charlotte.

Through the air

Player to watch:

WR Jamison Crowder

2013 receiving:
88 catches, 1131 yards, 7 touchdowns.

Duke runs the always-rare two-quarterback offense, which has strangely worked for the Blue Devils. How, it's hard to tell. But the one thing that doesn't change no matter who's under center is the production of Crowder on the outside. He's gone for more than 1,000 yards receiving in back-to-back seasons. He's got explosive speed and he's been able to get open consistently- despite teams knowing exactly where Duke wants to throw it.

That being said, Crowder goes up against the most imposing and physical (and fastest) secondary he'll face all season in FSU. FSU's defensive backfield has seen its share of explosive wide receivers in Tyler Boyd and Stephon Diggs, so it'll be interesting to see what they do with Crowder.

After Crowder, Duke likes to look to tight end Braxton Deaver and wideout Brandon Braxton over the middle. Both have 36 catches. But it's also important to note that none of Duke's regular receivers average more than 13 yards per catch. Duke likes to run a lot of short and midrange passes to stretch the field horizontally instead of vertically.

Pounding the ground

Player to watch:

QB Brandon Connette (Jr.)

2013 Rushing
: 98 carries, 328 yards, 13 touchdowns

Half of Duke's two-headed quarterback monster is a very, very good short-yardage back.

Connette is a punishing runner, and he specializes in getting the tough yards. He's not overly hulking, but 6-foot-2, 225 is good enough for a pretty solid runner. And his ability to pass the ball makes defending third and short or goal-line scenarios a dicey proposition against Duke.

It's one reason why the Blue Devils have converted touchdowns on 69 percent of their red zone trips - behind only Georgia Tech and Florida State in the ACC.

Duke also has two traditional running backs in Jela Duncan and Josh Snead but neither is anything close to Connette in terms of finding the end zone. It's also a given that Duke's offensive line hasn't seen anything like FSU's front seven, though Duke's running game stagnated for just 91 yards against a similarly stout Virginia Tech defense.

Getting defensive

Player to watch

DB Ross Cockrell (Sr.)

2013 Stats:
26 tackles, 3 INT, 11 passes broken up, 1 sack

The Duke secondary embodies why Duke has been able to win eight straight games: The Blue Devils come up with big plays when they have to. More often than not, those big plays have come from the defensive backfield.

With 16 interceptions this season, Duke's defense isn't quite FSU-level in terms of forcing turnovers, but it is totally respectable. Freshman safety Devon Edwards has played remarkably well as a rookie and five different Duke players have multiple interceptions.

That being said, the only unit that's been able to slow FSU's passing game down is FSU's own defense, when it forces too many turnovers and keeps the offense off the field. And if Duke is going to even limit FSU's passing, it'll have to start with Cockrell. The most experienced cover corner Duke has also has decent size at 6 feet. It'll be interesting to see how Duke uses him - If it's to just place him on an island with Rashad Greene and let the rest of the defense work to stop Kelvin Benjamin or if Duke gives Cockrell a chance against the big wideout one-on-one.

In a similar situation to Florida, Duke will probably hope for a few key interceptions early. But hey, even Florida got an early pick and that didn't derail FSU's offense. And even Cutcliffe admitted it that the Blue Devils simply don't have a matchup for Benjamin.

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