Saturday, October 25, 2008
MORAL VICTORY PREDICTION: DUKE AT VANDERBILT
Duke (3-3) at Vanderbilt (5-2)
3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25
Dudley Field, Nashville, Tenn.
After dropping two road games, the Commodores return home to Nashville. Don't underestimate the home field advantage in this one.
Vanderbilt is 2-2 on the road this season, with its two victories coming against an overmatched Miami of Ohio club and an Ole Miss team that gave up six turnovers, including a fumble in the end zone that killed what would have likely been the winning touchdown. The Mississippi State game in Starkville was a bitter disappointment, and a trip to Athens left the Commodores wearing familiar labels like "scrappy" and "resilient" but also with another loss.
But at home the Commodores have been dynamite, surprising a powerful South Carolina defense, answering a hot Rice Owl offense score for score before shutting them down in the second half, and holding Auburn scoreless for three quarters. Three home games, three impressive victories.
Now Duke comes to town. Here's what to expect:
WHEN DUKE HAS THE BALL
First of all, expect Vanderbilt to win the battle of field position. The Commodores are among the nation’s leaders in net punting, while Duke is last in the ACC in punt returns.
Expect Duke to grind it out on offense. The Blue Devils are among the ACC leaders in time of possession, while the Commodores are last in the SEC in first downs allowed.
One concern: The Duke receivers aren’t as fast or athletic as the Commodore secondary, but QB Thaddeus Lewis can turn it upfield when he needs to (remember what State’s Tyson Lee did to us on third down?).
But also expect Duke to settle for field goals when they get near the goal line. Vanderbilt is among the SEC leaders in red zone defense, and Duke has a reliable field goal kicker.
WHEN VANDERBILT HAS THE BALL
The Commodores are spectacular when they get a whiff of the end zone, leading the SEC with 96 percent red zone offense efficiency. And usually, those scores are touchdowns. Mackenzi Adams has torched opposing defenses in the red zone; take his end zone laser strikes against Auburn and Georgia for example.
The Blue Devils have only nine sacks on the season. On third down defense, though, Duke has a stout 32 percent conversion percentage.
Much has been made of the Commodore’s lowly ranking in total offense, but they’re sixth in the run-oriented SEC in rushing, while Duke is 11th in the ACC in rushing defense, giving up about 160 yards a game. Expect the newly fine-tuned offensive line, which performed admirably against Georgia, to open some nice holes, and expect Jared Hawkins to have a big game. Also, Vanderbilt coaches will be more likely to turn Mackenzi loose on designed quarterback keepers than they were against the wicked Georgia Bulldog hitters.
And don't be surprised if Chris Nickson enters the game for a series or two. This is the kind of defense he excels against. But if he gets on the field, hopefully he can hang onto the ball.
Both Duke and Vanderbilt are among the national leaders in fewest penalties and best turnover margin. For some reason, Duke’s opponents incur very few penalties which perhaps indicates a lack of complexity for the Blue Devils on both offense and defense.
Here’s another thing: Duke players spent the summer working on their speed. Think players from Florida and Georgia were working on their speed? Nope. You work on your speed when you’re slow. Vanderbilt now has the team speed to hang with other teams in the SEC, as evidenced by the lack of big plays its defense has given up this season.
The Commodores are faster, deeper and more athletic than the Blue Devils, and that should give them a shot of confidence out of the gate.
I’m worried about this one, but in the same way I was worried before the Miami of Ohio game. If the Commodores play their game, they should win this one by double digits. Of course, I said that about the game in Starkville, so I'm still worried.
But the homefield advantage and their superior talent should be the difference. And don't forget, success is a win by any score.
But what I’d like to see is this:
• For us to jump on the Blue Devils early and, for once, not have a deficit to overcome.
• For us to win handily and get some young guys some playing time. Larry Smith, anyone?
Final score: Vanderbilt 31, Duke 17