For everything the Duke offense has been this season, the Duke defense has not. In games in which the Blue Devils lost (and in some wins) the finger pointing typically goes in the direction of the defensive side of the ball for the ass whooping they usually get handed. Even the Virginia Tech Hokies who struggled to score points this season put up 41 against the Blue Devils and over 500 yards of total offense.
Statistically Duke ranks near the bottom of the ACC in every defensive category. They allow a ton of yards and points, don’t pressure the quarterback, and don’t get off the field on third down. But if there’s a silver lining on this side of the football it’s in the the turnover margin. The Blue Devils are actually in the plus column in this area picking off opponents 11 times this year, taking 2 back to the house, and forcing 14 fumbles this season. In essence Duke’s defense can be scored upon by they are incredibly opportunistic.
What this means for UC after the position breakdown, both of which are after the jump.
Two players to keep an eye on, or for Brendon Kay to keep an eye on rather, is cornerback Ross Cockrell (#6) and safety Jordan Byas (#38). They are definitely the strength of Duke’s secondary. Cockrell is a excellent cover corner who has picked off a team high 5 passes this year and knocked down a dozen more. I’m not quite sure why quarterbacks feel the need to throw to his side of the field anymore. Providing help over the top is safety Jordan Byas. He’s right behind Cockrell in interceptions this year with 2 but has taken one back for a touchdown. But what worries me is how he performs in run support. The kid has an impressive 6 tackles for loss which is the tied for the most on the Blue Devils. I envision Duke dialing a quite a few blitzes designed for this kid to give him the opportunity to shine. Overall, like I mentioned, this is an opportunistic secondary that can both pick off passes but force fumbles.
If there’s an area of weakness on the defensive side of the football it’s the linebacker corps and is likely why the Blue Devils give up almost 200 yards on the ground per game. Most of this is linked to the youth of the starters. While talented, they’re still fairly green as the first string is composed of two sophomores, C.J. France (#54) and David Helton (#47), and a freshman, Kyler Brown (#56). Senior Austin Gamble (#45) is definitely in the mix to provide leadership but it seems there’s a youth movement among the Blue Devil linebackers. Still, at the same time Duke is trying to build for the future with this unit and is trying to overcome the growing pains in the meantime.
Duke’s defensive front has been solid this year but don’t have enough playmakers to consistently get pressure on the quarterback or blow up running plays. It doesn’t help that the players in the level immediately behind them aren’t helping against the ground game. The Blue Devils are particularly strong on the edge with plenty of playmakers to wreak havoc. In particular is an athletic defensive end in Kenny Anunike (#84) who’s just a freight train of a pass rusher. The 6’5″ 240 lbs edge rusher leads the team with 5 sacks, has a team leading 6 tackles for loss (with safety Jordan Byas), and a forced fumble. He’s given offensive tackles fits all year long and has really shouldered the load of the defensive line this year.
Implications for the Cincinnati Bearcats
Run against this team. Cincinnati averages about 75 offensive snaps per game and UC needs to keep the ball on the ground about 70 – 80% of the time in the Belk Bowl. The Blue Devils simply aren’t good at stopping their opponents’ rushing attack. This centers around the youth at linebacker so if UC’s offensive line effectively gets a hat on a hat with regards to their defensive counterparts there’s a good chance the runningback will be sprung for a big gain. The Blue Devils compensate for their poor play from the linebackers by bringing up their defensive backs to provide run support but Duke can’t afford to do so against a Cincinnati team with playmakers in the receiving corps such as tight end Travis Kelce and Kenbrell Thompkins.
So in essence look for UC to pound the rock in the Belk Bowl. At least they should considering how poorly the Blue Devils play against the run and so well against the pass. Maybe not in terms of yards or touchdowns but they are ball-hawking in every sense of the phrase. The issue is that Duke uses, and sometimes overuses, their secondary to stop the run. So I’d hope when George Winn or Ralph David Abernathy start getting into a rhythm on the ground and Duke brings up the safeties to help, the Bearcats start trying to hit a receiver over the top. This timing is the key for a successful day from the Cincinnati offense. As it has been all season, it comes down to using a powerful run game to set up the pass and continuously keeping the defense on its heels.