As we approach the most dreaded Duke game in the history of Duke games, I sat down with Ben Swain of ACC Sports Journal. We trade witty remarks over 1,000 magical words about two teams trending in opposite directions, the faulty two quarterback system, the Blue Devil kicking game and what it's like to be even less than a little brother at your school.
I hope y'all enjoy our banter as much as the game on Saturday.
TKP: So...here we are. It's October, Duke is 5-1 while Virginia Tech sits at a paltry 3-3. The Hokies are favored, but I have also seen the line as low as a pick. This seems crazier than Nick Saban's daughter. I don't really have a question, just wanted to make a statement of how depressed I am..but for kicks, let's turn it into one. What's different about this Duke team?
Ben Swain: Confidence is a big part of it. Hopes were pretty high last year going into the season but Duke came out and shit the bed against Richmond in the opener, and the entire program was down in the dumps for the rest of the season. It's just easier to win games when you start tasting some success, kind of like that Wake Forest team in 2008. Football wise, Duke's running the ball better which has a lot to do with a more experienced offensive line and quality depth in the backfield. Duke's third string back is a true freshman, Jela Duncan, and he's probably the most talented back on the roster. The quarterback isn't getting sacked, which is always a positive for any offense. Duke's found success pressuring the opposing quarterback too; they're shockingly only one sack behind Florida State in that category. Could be the new scheme, could be the new D-Line coach, or it could just be players getting better. You'll appreciate this one more than most… the kicking game is night and day, thanks to two true freshman. Will Monday is a top 10 punter in the NCAA right now, and Ross Martin has only missed one kick so far this season. Last year Duke was 9-20 on field goals. Marinate on that for a minute. 9 of 20. That right there could be your reason for improvement.
TKP: The talk all week was that the Hokies will see both Sean Renfree and Anthony Boone this week. I can speak from experience that playing two quarterbacks is not the best of ideas, how do you feel about the two splitting time?
Ben Swain: I'm not a fan of splitting time either. Cutcliffe has taken a lot of heat on how he's managed his quarterbacks since Thad Lewis graduated… switching Renfree and Boone, using Brandon Connette as the short yardage and red-zone guy. But last week with Renfree out, Boone came in and threw 4 touchdowns in his first start, and led Duke on two touchdown drives against Wake Forest the previous week as QB1. He made a pretty pointed comment after the game along the lines of "that's why I prepare two quarterbacks." My gut feeling… if Sean's healthy, he'll be the quarterback. If he's not, you'll see Boone. I don't think he'll go rotating quarterbacks except in obvious situations where Boone gives Duke something that Renfree doesn't, like a 3rd and 1, or if he wants to go up tempo for a series.
TKP: Other than quarterback, I know one person who is always a threat is Conner Vernon. But because I hate him (I think it's the hair), he doesn't get his own questions. Who is the next best offensive weapon that Tech should have their eye on?
Ben Swain: Jamison Crowder. He has three fewer catches than Vernon and two fewer touchdowns. And in Duke's new offense where they're actually able to run the ball a little, he's the stretch-the-field guy and the play-action guy. And not to make jokes here, but kicker Ross Martin might be 2B for Duke on offense. Duke lost 14-10 to the Hokies last year (thanks to safety Matt Daniels who was the only player on either team worth watching in that game), and Will Snyderwine missed three field goals.
TKP: On defense the Blue Devils have had a rash of injuries in the secondary, but that didn't seem to be a problem against UVA. If the Hokies want to move the ball (well... at least try) where should they attack?
Ben Swain: Well Virginia did move the ball. A lot. They just didn't score points. They ran all over Duke, and I'd expect Logan to have a big game running the ball because Duke's line hasn't shown an interest in wrapping up tackles in the backfield. If I'm Virginia Tech, I'm going read option all day with Logan Thomas.
TKP: Obviously, Duke football will always be overshadowed by that other team on campus. But in the grand scheme of things, how big would becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1995 be for the program?
Ben Swain: You're right, lacrosse is still riding high after the national championship a couple of years ago. But here's the thing that nobody understands about Duke football… the streak of years without a post-season appearance is just the tip of the iceberg. Duke football fans have championed through multiple seasons when the Blue Devils didn't win a game. Multiple double-digit game losing streaks. And they still show up every year hoping beyond any shred of reason that this is the year that Duke football doesn't make them want to take a nap in the garage with the car running. People do not get that it goes well beyond not going to a bowl game. Being bowl eligible this season would mean that fans would get to experience a win against Virginia Tech, UNC, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech or Miami, and that's way more important than a bowl streak to thisfan base. If Duke loses on Saturday, there will still be a huge chunk of fans who are thinking "here comes 5-7, same old shit." But if Duke wins on Saturday, I think you'll see an explosion of support for this program heading into next week's night game with UNC that would rival the enthusiasm that people used to have for Duke basketball when it was actually real passion and not the scripted support you see in Cameron these days.
TKP: At the end of the day, how confident are you (scale of 1-10) that Duke can win in Blacksburg? (I caught myself writing "pull off the upset" when I realized that it wouldn't be...I need a drink)
Ben Swain: Brian, I can't remember the last time I was confident about a Duke win against any opponent. Maybe the two games against NC Central.
TKP: Okay, last one. Give us a score prediction. Who wins, and why?
Ben Swain: We all win because no matter what happens, Notre Dame's coming.