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October 26, 2006

Vanderbilt at Duke scouting report

Duke embarks on the latter half of a four game homestand on Saturday when the Vanderbilt Commodores visit Wallace Wade Stadium.

Who has the edge at each position and what is our prediction?

Read on for the weekly scouting report.

QUARTERBACK

Each team brings a similar situation to the table at the quarterback position. Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson has shown many good things, but his inconsistency and occasional wild throws have also caused the Commodores some problems. Duke knows exactly how that feels, as freshman Thaddeus Lewis has at times looked like a program changing savior and at other times has looked like the true freshman that he is. Nickson probably has slightly better overall options at wide receiver and has shown himself to be a bigger threat running the football, but all in all this looks like a draw.

EDGE: Even

RUNNING BACK

Vanderbilt at least has a back who produces on a pretty consistent basis. Cassen Jackson-Garrison has his weaknesses, but Duke doesn't have a single player who can match Garrison's 478 rushing yards on the season. Jared Hawkins has threatened to take over the starting job this season, but he's still number two on the depth chart behind Garrison. Duke has more depth at running back, but the production is not in the same league. The Blue Devils can take some momentum into the game knowing they ran the ball well against both Alabama and Miami. One area Duke's backs have an advantage is catching the ball out of the backfield, but the overall body of work still tilts a bit toward Vanderbilt.

EDGE: Small Vanderbilt

RECEIVERS

This position for Vanderbilt is clearly headlined by Earl Bennett, but the sophomore All-SEC player is not alone in producing for the Commodores. Tight end Steven Bright ranks second on the team in receiving yards, and an additional three players have caught touchdown passes on the season. Duke has some good options at receiver as well, and the Devils have to feel particularly good about the performances of Jomar Wright and Raphael Chestnut last week against Miami. If you take Bennett out of the picture, this position would be even or maybe even slightly tilted toward Duke. However, you can't remove Bennett, and with him in the picture Vanderbilt has the balances tip toward the black and gold.

EDGE: Small Vanderbilt

OFFENSIVE LINE

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has been able to build up his program's depth up front, and because of that the Commodores have a starting offensive line that features four upperclassmen and one redshirt freshman. Duke's offensive line has shown promising development, but it's still a major concern on a weekly basis. For the season, Vanderbilt is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and has only allowed 11 sacks through eight games. Duke's numbers in both categories are significantly worse. The Blue Devils can compete in this area with a good performance, but the wide range of variables for the Duke O-Line just make it impossible to give the edge to the Devils here.

EDGE: Medium Vanderbilt

DEFENSIVE LINE

Just as is the case with Duke, most of Vanderbilt's experience is in its defensive front seven. The front four for the Commodores has two seniors and two juniors. Defensive end Curtis Gatewood leads the charge. Gatewood has 36 tackles on the season and leads the team in sacks with five. The middle is anchored by 290 pounder Theo Horricks who has not only been a rock against the run but has also forced three fumbles. Duke's defensive line has been one of the brightest storylines of the year. Even without senior Eli Nichols over the last couple of weeks, the line has continued to play very respectably, particularly against the run. The Blue Devils have a sizable statistical advantage over Vanderbilt in run defense, but the Commodores have been much more adept at getting pressure on the quarterback from just their front four. Call this matchup a draw.

EDGE: Even

LINEBACKERS

Jonathan Goff is the main attraction when Vanderbilt's linebackers take the field. The 235 pound junior has been all over the field this season. He by far leads the team in tackles with 63 and he's filled up the stat sheet with sacks, pass breakups, quarterback hurries, forced fumbles, and even a blocked kick. His sidekicks, Marcus Buggs and Kevin Joyce, aren't bad in their own right. Buggs leads the team in tackles for loss and all three linebackers have proven capable of forcing turnovers in one form or another. Duke's linebackers have had a strong year as well, particularly with the emergence of Codey Lowe over the last three weeks. Lowe has been a force against Alabama, Florida State, and Miami, and has thrived in his final season due to finally having good health. Pound for pound, Duke matches up well with Vandy, but the Commodores have shown a better ability at causing turnovers, which could be the difference in this game.

EDGE: Small Vanderbilt

SECONDARY

A glance at the Vanderbilt depth chart might make Duke fans feel optimistic about the passing game this weekend. But don't be fooled by the fact that the Commodores start three freshmen and a sophomore in the defensive backfield. Sophomore safety Reshard Langford is one of the SEC's youngest defensive stars, and each of the freshman cornerbacks unseated a returning upperclassman. Statistically, Vanderbilt has been better against the pass than Duke, but those numbers may be a bit skewed since the Commodores have yet to face Florida and Tennessee while Duke has gone up against Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Miami. John Talley has clearly been Duke's best big play threat defensively. Not only can he pick off a pass in the blink of an eye, but he often turns interceptions into big yardage or even points going the other way. Talley's big play ability plus the overall experience edge in the secondary for the Blue Devils gives the home team a slight advantage.

EDGE: Small Duke

SPECIAL TEAMS

Both teams have similar worries in the kicking game. Vanderbilt's punting and placekicking have been a roller coaster ride this year, much like Duke's. The Commodores have little to be excited about in the kick return department, where Jabari Marshall has shined for Duke. The Blue Devils improved last week on punt coverage thanks largely to implementing a rugby style punt that prevented easy opportunities at returns. It will be interesting to see if Alex Feinberg tries that again or if Duke goes back to conventional punting. The Blue Devils have the advantage in the return game, while Vanderbilt has a slim edge in punting and kicking. The game could swing in this area.

EDGE: Small Vanderbilt

OVERALL

This game is a defining moment for this season. Can Duke finally build on a positive performance and take it up another step? If it can, there's every reason to think the Blue Devils could win this game. However, Vanderbilt (with the exception of its loss to Ole Miss) rarely beats itself and the Commodores' defense leads the SEC in takeaways. Turning the ball over has been Duke's achilles heel, which may spell trouble.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 23-17


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