This weekend's game against Duke is a pivotal matchup in Atlantic Coast Conference play. If the Deacons can break out of their slump, they will still have a chance to make it back to the conference championship game and make their third straight bowl game. If they lose, their situation will be much more dire. Here's a break down of Duke, position-by-position:
Starting at quarterback for the Blue Devils is junior signal-caller Thaddeus Lewis (6-2, 200). Lewis has benefited greatly from new head coach David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe, widely renowned for his ability to make quarterbacks better, has lived up to his reputation with Lewis. The junior has thrown ten touchdowns this year versus only three interceptions which is up from an almost 2-1 ratio last year. He is completing 57% of his passes which is up from last year and he has shown increased decision-making this year.
Lewis has decent size for a quarterback and adequate speed. He isn't going to gash anybody for long runs (33 net rushing yards this year), but he can usually do enough to avoid the rush and buy some time for his offense.
The Duke offense has struggled somewhat running the ball this year and are averaging a little over 100 yards a game on the ground as a team. The running back situation is very similar for the Blue Devils as it was for Wake last year with a senior leader and a talented freshman. The senior tailback, and leading rusher, for the Blue Devils is Clifford Harris (5-10, 220). Harris is a straight-forward, traditional power back. He won't kill you with speed and jukes, but he reads his blocks well and gets north/south in a hurry. He is only averaging 3.6 YPC this year but a lot of those have come in short-yardage situations.
The other main option is freshman Jay Hollingsworth (5-11, 185). He possesses much better speed at the running back position and is more of a "lightning" back to Harris's "thunder". Hollingsworth has gone over 200 yards so far this year, but the young back is still struggling to pick up the finer nuances of the game. The freshman has yet to find the endzone this year on the ground and is averaging only 3.5 YPC. This is a match-up that has to favor the Deacon defense as it would be a huge surprise to see the Blue Devils have any sort of success running the ball consistently on Saturday.
Duke has 5 different receivers with double-digit receptions, but this team lives and dies with how its star player plays. Eron Riley (6-3, 205) is the senior leader of the offense and is probably the best athlete on the team. He has over 400 yards receiving this year and has gone off for six touchdowns in seven games. No other Duke receiver has more than one touchdown catch. Watch for Alphonso Smith to be matched up on Riley all day long and should be a great battle between two seniors who will more than likely find themselves on NFL teams next year.
Probably the weakest part of the team, the offensive line has a lot of experience but lacks the typical size you would expect in an ACC offensive line. The starters from left to right are: LT Cameron Goldberg (6-6, 265, JR), LG Jarrod Holt (6-6, 310, JR), C Bryan Morgan (6-3, 250, FR), RG Rob Schirmann (6-5, 285, JR) and RT Fred Roland (6-8, 300, JR). After playing against some of the lines like Clemson and Florida State this year, Duke just doesn't have the same size and talent in the trenches.
This, combined with their lack of a true game-breaker at the running back position, leave their offense capable of being shut-down. In two of their last three games, Duke managed only 10 points. At the same time, two weeks ago they went off for 31 points against a talented Miami defensive team.
The Wake Forest defense however matches up fairly well against a more traditional attack for Duke. With Aaron Curry and the linebacking corps eliminating most of the ground game for the Blue Devils coupled with Alphonso Smith matched up against their one true weapon, Eron Riley all game, the defense has the potential to shut down the Duke offense (on paper at least).
Although the offense has struggled this year so far the Blue Devils (98th overall), the defense has been statistically much better (52nd overall). The front seven has been very solid for Duke and it all starts up front with defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase (6-6, 300). The senior leader is the best player on defense for Duke and will get drafted in April. He is a great plug in the middle and is great at eating up two offensive linemen and freeing up the linebackers behind him to make plays.
The rest of the defensive line is an experienced unit with the remaining starters being two seniors and a junior and there are no freshmen or sophomores in the two-deep depth chart. At the other defensive tackle spot, senior Clifford Respress (6-4, 280) isn't spectacular but he's been on the field for three years now and won't get pushed around easily.
The two defensive ends for the Blue Devils are junior Wesley Oglesby (6-6, 245) and senior Greg Akinbiyi (6-2, 235). Neither defensive end is on pace for a record-setting sack count this year, but they are seasoned players who have some experience in this league. They obviously don't have the size you want in a defensive end but Oglesby is an explosive player and he is the best threat for a consistent pass rush along the defensive line.
While the interior of the defensive line has some star power and has played well, the strongest unit on the team has to be the linebacking corps. The top two players from last year's team, Michael Tauiliili (5-11, 235, SR) and Vincent Rey (6-0, 240, JR) combined for 219 tackles. That is obviously an absurd number and the two have come back this year as good as ever with another year of experience under their belt. This duo rarely makes mistakes and is great at bringing a runner down on first contact. Wake might not see a better combo of linebackers all year long.
At the other linebacker spot, Marcus Jones (6-3, 225, SR) is a solid player and together the three are a deep, experienced unit with a ton of talent. They will provide a stiff test all day long for a Deacon rushing attack that has struggled mightily all year.
The weakest part of the defense for the Blue Devils is the secondary. They are experienced, like the rest of the defense for the Blue Devils, but they lack next-level talent.
Starting at the two corner spots for Duke are juniors Leon Wright (5-9, 170) and Jabari Marshall (5-11, 195). These are the most experienced players for the Blue Devils secondary as they both started last year. They haven't made many big plays this year but they also haven't given up a ton of big plays this year either.
At the two safety positions, senior Glenn Williams (5-10, 185) and junior Catron Gainey (6-2, 205) have done a decent job manning down the position. Gainey represents the lone new starter in the secondary for Duke and he has been picked on a little bit this year. If a big play were to happen on Saturday, chances are it would involve Gainey. Williams is a smart player and doesn't blow too many assignments.
Adrian Aye-Darko (6-2, 210, JR) is the third safety on the depth chart and will see a lot of time on the field. Not listed as a starter, Aye-Darko is an impact player that makes a lot of noise when he does play. He currently leads the team in interceptions with four to go along with two forced fumbles. Aye-Darko is definitely a player that the Deacon offense needs to keep an eye on all game as he clearly has a penchant for the big play.