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Game preview: Duke vs. Memphis

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Sean Renfree will lead the aerial attack against Memphis. Credit: CHRIS SEWARD

Duke vs. Memphis

When: 6 p.m.

Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham

Line: Duke by 23.5

TV/Radio: ESPN3/ WDNC-620 AM, WKIX-102.9 FM

What they’re saying nationally about Duke:

ESPN’s Heather Dinich has Duke slated to play in the Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman on Dec. 28

CBS Sports’ Shawn Krest: They've crushed the opponents they needed to beat, and their loss to Stanford looks a little better after the Cardinal's upset of Southern Cal.

What they’re saying nationally about Memphis:

CBS Sports’ Sean Bielawski: Memphis has been one of the worst FBS teams in the country the last few years. The Tigers did keep it within single digits against Tennessee-Martin (20-17) and Arkansas State (33-28), but Duke should comfortably make it to 3-1 on the year.

Key Player for the opposition:

WR Keiwone Malone

David Cutcliffe said this week that he wants his defense to tackle better. Keiwone Malone will be one of the Blue Devils’ moving targets.

Malone, who stands 5-foot-11, 155 pounds, started his career at Alabama before transferring to Memphis last season. Malone is coming off the best game of his career, catching 10 passes for 102 yards in a loss to Middle Tennessee State.

“They have talent, they’re very youthful in a lot of places,” Cutcliffe said. “You see them flashing all the time. You see the playmakers they’ve got on offense, they concern you.”

Malone has caught a team-high 19 passes this season, amassing 225 yards and one touchdown. Teammate Marcus Rucker will be another tackling target for Duke, as he leads the Tigers with 229 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Both receivers also play on special teams, the strongest unit for Memphis this season.

Key Matchup:

Memphis KR Bobby McCain vs. Duke’s coverage, including Issac Blakeney

There’s no doubt Duke would like to see better coverage on both punt and kick returns. Against Stanford, Drew Terrell returned a punt 76 yards for the game’s first touchdown, and last week, North Carolina Central’s Arthur Goforth returned a kick 59 yards before Issac Blakeney displayed nice closing speed and caught him from behind. While Memphis has struggled on offense and defense, special teams has been a bright spot. Morris returned five kickoffs for 138 yards, which includes a 55-yard return. As a team, the Tigers collected 200 return yards, second-most in school history.

Key Mismatch:

Memphis CBs Bakari Hollier and Bobby McCain vs. WRs Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder

The sophomore duo of Hollier and McCain will be charged with stopping Duke’s two main offensive threats. Memphis has struggled on defense this year, giving up an average of 483 yards per game, which ranks the Tigers 108 out of 120 FBS teams in total defense. Meanwhile, Vernon is continuing his climb to the top of the ACC receiving records list, with 21 catches for 280 yards so far this season. He needs 14 more catches and 547 yards to become the all-time leader in both categories. Crowder leads the team with 23 catches for 298 yards and two touchdowns.

Key numbers:


The average number of yards Duke gains on the ground per game. That’s 111th out of the 120 FBS teams. If the Blue Devils are going to get the running game going, Memphis, with its 108th-ranked run defense, provides a nice opportunity.


Punter Will Monday's national rank in terms of average yards per punt


Last year Duke started 3-1 (Cutcliffe’s first year)


Last time before the Cutcliffe era that Duke collected at least three wins in its first four games (Fred Goldsmith started 7-0 en route to guiding Duke to the Hall of Fame Bowl)

Pulse check:

Yes, Memphis looks weak, and, yes, Duke is favored by 23.5 points (which is up from 21.5 earlier in the week). But the Blue Devils aren’t looking past the Tigers. As Cutcliffe said, “when you in the shoes we’re in, I haven’t seen one yet that’s not a must-win.”

Also of note: the fuzzy, feel good vibes that permeated the team after the season-opening victory against FIU (which may have set the Blue Devils up for the beating they took at Stanford) are completely gone.

“I think we have taken a much more realistic view of what we’re doing,” Cutcliffe said. “When we evaluate ourselves, how did we beat FIU, what did we really accomplish, how well did we really block, how well did we really tackle, how consistent were we? When we graded our consistency, it wasn’t as good as we would have liked. The same thing has been true the last two ballgames. It really doesn’t matter who we are playing.”

If Duke wants to keep its bowl hopes alive, a victory over the Tigers is an absolute must. A convincing win would go a long way to continuing to build the team’s collective confidence.

And I touched pretty thoroughly on the injury sitation, which is improving, over the past few days. In what could be considered a paradox, the number of injuries Duke has sustained over the past two years has set the Blue Devils up well to cope with this year's outbreak.

Tweet of the week:

“Go ahead and add defense to my resume... #safety #dukegang” —Brandon Connette, who had already lined up at QB, WR, RB, TE and on the punt return unit before he took reps at safety last week.

Their predictions:

ESPN’s Heather Dinich: Duke 48, Memphis 28

CBS Sports’ Sean Bielawski: Duke 41, Memphis 20

My prediction:

First, stop, pause and consider the fact that Duke is favored by 23.5 points over a fellow FBS opponent. The Blue Devils have come a long way since Cutcliffe arrived in 2008.

With that established, I fully expect Duke to win. I’m intrigued, though, to see how they do it. In order for Duke to come away satisfied, the Blue Devils need to establish some sort of traditional running game (no plethora of swing passes), and the defense needs to shut down an inferior offense. Ideally, the defense surrenders fewer yards than the 337 they did against NC Central and limits the number of big plays. But I wouldn’t bet on any of the above happening, mainly due to the injury situation.  

Duke 42, Memphis 31

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About the blogger

Laura Keeley is the Duke beat writer for the News & Observer. Follow her on Twitter @laurakeeley