Saturday is Senior Day in Durham, as Duke welcomes Wake Forest for the final game of the regular season. With identical records at 7-4, the teams are evenly matched on paper. Duke looks to bounce back from a crushing two-point loss to Pittsburgh, while Wake Forest hopes to capitalize on the momentum from its big win over Syracuse. Led by two high-flying offenses, this game promises to be a classic shootout. Here are five things to watch for Saturday.
Wake Forest’s offense is built around the air raid, which excels due to a unique system: the slow mesh. In a slow mesh system, almost all plays are run-pass options (RPOs). However, the slow mesh differs from regular RPOs; instead of making a pre-snap read, the quarterback reads the defense during the play while holding the ball against the running back’s chest. He then decides whether to complete the handoff or pass, depending on how the defense reacts.
The slow mesh has worked wonders for Wake Forest signal caller Sam Hartman, who has thrived in his redshirt junior year. The junior from Charlotte currently has 3,074 passing yards, the 15th-most in the nation, combined with 32 touchdowns, good for sixth in the nation. Just last week, he tossed for 331 yards and four touchdowns with a 69.8% completion rate against Syracuse. His best target, junior wideout A.T. Perry, is also having a fantastic season, accumulating 893 yards to date.
“It requires a lot of attention,” Duke head coach Mike Elko said in his media availability Monday of the slow mesh offense. “It requires a lot of details in terms of how we are going to have to execute to stop it.”
Duke had great success defending the air in Pittsburgh against the ground-and-pound Panthers, forcing two interceptions and only allowing 190 passing yards. In order to help out the offense, the Blue Devil secondary needs to have another big game.
The Blue Devils' errors cost them at least 21 points against Pittsburgh. Jalon Calhoun muffed a punt in the first quarter, giving the ball to Pittsburgh on the Duke 6-yard line. His mistake turned into seven points the next play. Then, a fumble by running back Jordan Waters in the third quarter was returned for a touchdown. Earlier, on fourth down, sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard heaved a prayer toward the end zone under pressure. Duke wide receiver Jontavis Robertson, open in the end zone, dropped the ball in another seven-point swing.
“Anytime anything shows up, you get worried about it as a coach,” Elko said, referring to turnovers. “You address them like they are a big deal and you fix them like they are a big deal.”
All season long, Elko and Duke’s coaching staff have emphasized the importance of winning the turnover battle. In a game likely to be a shootout, every possession matters; Duke must focus on limiting mistakes and playing its brand of football.
Let Leonard cook
For all the mistakes the Blue Devils made last week, Leonard played an amazing game. He passed for 290 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers, keeping Duke within striking distance after being down two scores early. He saved his best throw of the day for last: On fourth-and-18 with 55 seconds left, he found running back Jaylen Coleman sneaking out of the backfield for the touchdown to set up a two-point conversion for a chance to tie the game.
Wake Forest has struggled in pass coverage, ranking 110th in the nation with 377 passing yards allowed per game. Its worst effort came against North Carolina, when Heisman Trophy candidate Drake Maye passed for 448 yards and three touchdowns. Duke relies on two talented wideouts in Calhoun and Jordan Moore, who have 637 yards and 567 yards on the season, respectively. For Duke to keep pace with the talented Demon Deacons, Leonard and his tandem on the outside must exploit their opponent’s biggest weakness.
Get the run game going
Facing one of the best front sevens in the ACC, Duke’s running game just never found its rhythm against Pittsburgh. Waters had seven carries for 35 yards, while Coleman did not fare much better with 12 carries for 33 yards. Even the dual-threat Leonard could not find running room: He finished the day with -4 yards on seven attempts. It was an uncharacteristic performance for the Duke backfield, which averages 191 yards per game on the ground.
“We could just never get the run game established like we wanted to,” Elko said. “I thought that put us behind the chains a lot more than we needed.”
Entering Saturday’s matchup against Wake Forest, Waters and company have a chance to really thrive. The Demon Deacons allow 140 yards per game on the ground. To win Saturday, the Blue Devils have to keep the Wake Forest offense off the field for as much time as they can; an effective day on the ground could do just that.
Race to eight
Both Duke and Wake Forest sit at 7-4 entering the last game of the regular season. An eighth win would mean a lot for both programs. For Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson, such a result could stamp the slow mesh offense as a success and earn his Demon Deacons a better bowl game. For Elko and the Blue Devils, it would provide a fifth ACC win against a talented group on Senior Day and end Elko’s rookie season on a high note.
“We talk about eight-and-four being a big deal, we talk about five wins in the ACC being a big deal,” Elko said. “Those are the things that are really important to our program. I think our kids will have their antennas up and they'll be ready to play Saturday.”
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