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Scouting the opponent: Duke football and Syracuse set for ACC basement battle

<p>Deon Jackson will have a chance to feast on a weak Syracuse run defense.</p>

Deon Jackson will have a chance to feast on a weak Syracuse run defense.

There is only one word to summarize the 2019 seasons for both Duke and Syracuse: disappointing. 

It will be a tale of two painstakingly similar teams in their fourth-ever match up this weekend.

The Orange were the only ACC team outside of Clemson that cracked the preseason top 25, and Syracuse appeared to be poised to give the defending national champion, Clemson, some competition for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. 

Quite the contrary has proven to be true.

After being embarrassed by Maryland in in the second game of the season, the Orange fell out of the top 25, spiraling out of control from then on. With its three wins coming against non-Power Five opponents, a bowl game is highly unlikely and, at this point, Syracuse is just competing to not go winless in conference play.

Here are five things to watch out for as Syracuse travels to take to Durham Saturday to take on the Blue Devils. 

Are the Blue Devils ready for Tommy DeVito?

Orange quarterback Tommy DeVito has quietly been putting together a formidable redshirt sophomore season amidst all the utter chaos around him. Having already surpassed 2,000 passing yards, he has shown that he is comfortable slinging the ball around while still taking care of the football. He has done so behind an offensive line that, according to Football Outsiders, has allowed the worst sack rate in the country.

Though DeVito is not going to dominate anyone with his sheer athleticism, the Blue Devils have not played many quarterbacks with his efficiency in the pocket since they battled Alabama and Tua Tagovailoa in August. 

“We’re going to do whatever we can to get back there [to the quarterback]," said Duke senior defensive end Tre Hornburckle. "They are an explosive team. They try to get off a lot of plays during the game so we are going to work this week to really work on our pass run techniques and really just doing our job. That’s where all the sacks will come.”

Can Trishton Jackson be contained?

On the receiving end of DeVito’s passes, wide receiver Trishton Jackson has made his presence felt all season long. In the waning minutes of the third quarter against Maryland, Jackson ripped off a tantalizing 52-yard catch-and-run.

The Michigan State transfer has proven that the lack of success of his team puts no wrinkles in his plan for the season. With three games to go, Jackson already has 780 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. The Duke secondary will have its hands full, as Jackson is lethal in space and has a great feel for finding the soft spots in coverage. His big play ability, both on the 50-50 deep ball and routine screen passes, has been one of the few bright spots on this Syracuse team so there is no doubt Jackson will see a healthy share of targets all game.

“I have always loved what [the Orange] do offensively and they scare you to death when you’re playing them...defensively, they are always aggressive and physical,” said Duke head coach David Cutcliffe.

The Orange curtain?

The Syracuse run defense has struggled of late, surrendering 496 yards on the ground to a bruising Boston College backfield last week.

With the surprising drop off of last year’s FBS interception leader, Andre Cisco, the Orange secondary has allowed opposing quarterbacks to shred them through the air also. Any spark from the defense has been via the nine fumbles they have pounced on.

Interim defensive coordinator Steve Stanard has called a balanced defense thus far, mixing up his coverages and defensive line looks. Syracuse has shown three, four and five-man fronts, tailoring them each week to its opponent, with the one constant being blitzing their linebackers to get to the quarterback. Duke should look for big offensive production against this vulnerable defense.

We’ve just been making a lot of mistakes mentally, some missed assignments and not being able to do our job so I think coming out to practice and working out those little mistakes that we make is important,” said junior tight end Noah Gray. “Being unified and working together as a group is really going to help down the line.”

How will field position be a factor?

The aspect of football games that is most often overlooked is undoubtedly special teams. Syracuse has an All-ACC punter in Sterling Hofrichter who has the ability to flip the field. Hofrichter’s impact on this game cannot be overlooked, as Duke has struggled immensely to move the football in their past three games. 

The Blue Devils’ lone touchdown against Notre Dame came as a result of a gift-wrapped shanked punt, furthering the obvious narrative that they have trouble stringing together long drives. Hofrichter will do everything in his power to force Quentin Harris to orchestrate those 75-yard scoring drives that have eluded Duke recently. 

“They are outstanding in the kicking game….It maybe sounds like I am in a serious mood,” said Cutcliffe. “Yes, I am. I’m far from defeated but if you asked me if I was in a good mood I would tell you no. There is a reality to all this.”

How does bowl eligibility factor into this?

Duke and Syracuse are both able to claw their way into bowl games if they turn their seasons around. For the Blue Devils, they most likely need to win two of their next three contests, but, for the Orange, all of their remaining games are must-win if they want to play in the postseason. 

This Syracuse team is coming off of a 10-win season. Do not be surprised if the Orange come out with a new level of vigor in their play to attempt to save face on this nightmare of a season.

“We’re trying to go 1-0 this week. Anybody that is worried about a bowl game won’t be in our locker room,” said Cutcliffe.

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