With Duke traveling to face Middle Tennessee on Saturday, head coach David Cutcliffe's squad could be looking at a game that sets a tone for the rest of the season. Coming off of an impressive 45-13 victory in the home opener against North Carolina A&T, the Blue Devils are favored by three points against one of the most consistent teams in Conference USA.
Blue Raiders head coach Rick Stockstill is now in his thirteenth year at the helm after posting an 8-6 record last season and going 7-1 in conference play. So far this season, his team is 1-1 with a dominant win this past Saturday against Tennessee State and a 40-21 loss in week one on the road against tenth ranked Michigan.
Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who developed 2016 No. 1 overall draft pick Jared Goff at California, runs a spread offense predicated on misdirection and efficient passes for redshirt sophomore quarterback Asher O’Hara. The Blue Raiders offense gets creative with play-calling and formations, especially in the red zone.
The Blue Devils will likely see a significant amount of pre-snap motion on Saturday as Middle Tennessee looks to catch them out of position. The Blue Raiders seek to create mismatches in space by forcing opposing linebackers and nickel corners to cover their speedy receivers and running backs. Middle Tennessee often uses a fullback as an extra blocker against edge rushers, which helps create a clean pocket for O’Hara to go through his progressions.
Franklin often has his outside receivers line up closer to the center in a bunch formation and also utilizes crossing routes that try to exploit man coverage. This scheme combined with the misdirection from the slot receiver allows for an easy completion off a play-action rollout by O’Hara, and then a touchdown on the very next play.
Middle Tennessee also likes to use play action to create one-on-one matchups on the perimeter. The fake to the running back often freezes the nickel corner or linebacker covering the slot, and once O’Hara looks to the outside receiver, the defender is already out of position. Against Michigan, O’Hara showed an ability to throw an effective back-shoulder fade, an extremely difficult pass to complete if the corner is forcing the receiver to the sideline. This exact throw resulted in a 59 yard touchdown late against the Wolverines, and Duke’s secondary will have to stay disciplined when reading Franklin's use of play-action.
Defensively, the Blue Raiders employ a 4-2-5 blitz-heavy scheme that puts their linebackers in position to make plays. In the run game, their defensive line often crashes down, forcing the linebackers to make a tackle within a few yards of the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer utilizes many unique blitz packages to prevent a running quarterback from escaping the pocket including stunts, delayed blitzes, and pressure by the linebackers straight up the middle.
Blue Devils' quarterback Quentin Harris will have to identify where the pressure is coming from and adjust the pass protection accordingly in Saturday’s matchup. Middle Tennessee’s secondary is very well coached, and is great at making key tackles in the open field.
Overall, the Blue Devils will need another standout game from Harris in order to come away with a road win. Middle Tennessee puts pressure on its opponent on both sides of the ball, but Cutcliffe's team should be prepared with their veteran quarterback at the helm to handle a blitz-heavy defense.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.