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November 9, 2013

Game breakdown: Duke

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Keys To The Game

Keep running: If there's one thing that has been working for NC State in the past two games it is, without a doubt, the running game. The Wolfpack has averaged 218 yards per game on the ground in the past two weeks, and that has been their most effective way to move the ball this year.

NCSU has already totaled more rushing yards than last year with 1,473 through eight games, and the team is on pace to total 2,209.5 yards rushing, the most since 1992. Its averages of 4.2 yards per carry and 184.1 rushing yards per game are the program's best marks since 1994, when it averaged 4.4 and 192.0, respectively.

Meanwhile, Duke's defense ranks 69th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 167.6 yards on the ground per game. If NC State is going to score more than 19 points — which they haven't done in an ACC game all year — and have a chance to beat the Blue Devils, the ground game is going to have to be very productive.

Get Brandon Mitchell some confidence early: Since returning from injury, fifth-year senior quarterback Brandon Mitchell has completed just 27 of 55 passes (49.1 percent) for 258 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions. For comparison's sake, in the season opener — when Mitchell logged just 15 snaps but led the Pack on touchdown-scoring drives of 65 and 75 yards — he threw for 93 yards and three completions on three attempts.

It was no secret that Mitchell would not be able to keep up that pace all year, but the Pack does need to get back to doing the things it did so successfully against Louisiana Tech. It would also make sense for them to start Mitchell (or Pete Thomas, if he happens to start) off in the game with some easy, high-percentage throws to get the confidence going early.

The team and Mitchell both did a great job of starting fast against Carolina — the quarterback was 5-of-6 passing for 44 yards in the first quarter, while the Pack jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but he went 1-of-5 passing for no yards in the second quarter and the Pack trailed 21-16 at the half.

Keep track of Jamison Crowder: Duke has been able to be successful while playing two different quarterbacks, thanks to junior wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who very quietly recorded a 1,000-yard receiving season last year and has already hauled in 60 passes for 769 yards and three scores this year.

He has more than double the number of receptions of the next leading receiver for the Blue Devils, and he ranks 11th nationally with an average of 7.5 catches per game. Crowder's clip of 96.1 receiving yards per game checks in at fifth in the ACC and ranks 25th nationally. State will also have to keep track of him on punts — he is one of the nation's most electric returners with an average of 17.5 yards on 17 runbacks, including two that he took back for touchdowns.

Finish strong: While NCSU might have an advantage in the ground game based on this year's results, Duke definitely has the edge in the fourth quarter. NC State just hasn't been able to finish games this year, and the Pack has been outscored by opponents 61-43 in the final frame. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils have been stellar late in games. In addition to outscoring opponents 72-27 in the final frame, they have more than doubled their opponents' second-half output 138-62.

Game outlook: The finish in this one is likely to be huge. The teams have historically played it pretty close and, on paper, the teams should be fairly even. However, Duke is a team playing with confidence after winning four in a row and they're at home, while NC State is one still looking for its first conference win of the year and an identity. It's safe to say one can see the logic behind Duke being listed as a 10-point favorite in Las Vegas, but this could also very well be the game where NCSU finally puts it together and picks up ACC win No. 1 of the Dave Doeren era.

Five Duke Players To Watch

Sixth-year senior defensive end Kenny Anunike — The 6-5, 260-pounder had a tackle during his redshirt year in 2009, and then got hurt in 2011, playing in only four games. He has 41 tackles and leads the team with 10 tackles for loss and four sacks. He tied his career high with eight tackles, and had 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack in the 35-22 win at Virginia Oct. 19. He also had seven tackles and a sack against Navy Oct. 12, and seven tackles against Georgia Tech Sept. 14. Anunike, who is from Galena, Ohio, has 122 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in his career.

Redshirt junior quarterback Anthony Boone — Boone got injured in the second game, but has returned for the last three contests. The 6-2, 230-pounder is 5-0 as a starter this season. Boone was 31-of-38 passing for a career-high 295 yards with three touchdowns in a 38-31 win over Navy Oct. 12. However, he also struggled in the Virginia Tech game Oct. 26, going 7-of-25 passing for 107 yards with four interceptions. Boone has completed 86 of 138 passes for 922 yards with five touchdowns and six interceptions. The Weddington, N.C., native also has rushed for 113 yards and three scores on 34 carries, and he did hurt the Hokies with his legs (44 rushing yards and a score).

Redshirt sophomore safety Jeremy Cash — The 6-2, 210-pound transfer from Ohio State has been a big boost to Duke's defense. He has 72 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. He combined for 40 tackles during a three-game stretch against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Troy. The Plantation, Fla., product had a career-high 14 tackles in two of those games, and 12 against the Panthers. Cash has gotten an interception in three of the last four games, including the Virginia Tech win.

Fifth-year senior cornerback Ross Cockrell — The 6-0, 180-pound four-year starter has been a stalwart in Duke's secondary. Cockrell has 220 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 11 interceptions and 34 passes broken up in his career. He has been solid this fall with 33 tackles, two interceptions and five passes broken up. He snagged one of the four interceptions in Duke's win at Virginia Tech Oct. 26. The Waxhaw, N.C., native is also a three-time All-ACC Academic selection and was first-team all-league in football last year.

Junior wide receiver Jamison Crowder — Crowder had the task of replacing Connor Vernon as Duke's No. 1 receiving option. The 5-9, 175-pounder has responded with 60 catches for 769 yards and three touchdowns this season. Crowder also has returned two punt returns for scores, and is averaging 17.5 yards on 17 runbacks. The Monroe, N.C., native has topped 113 yards in receiving four of eight games this season and had seven catches for a season-high 149 yards and a touchdown against Troy Sept. 28. Crowder has 150 receptions for 2,006 yards and 12 touchdowns in 33 career games.

Three Matchups To Watch

1. Duke had a three-game stretch in September when quarterbacks torched the Blue Devils' defense.

Georgia Tech signal-caller Vad Lee enjoyed his homecoming to Durham Sept. 14, with four touchdown passes and a rushing score while passing for 125 yards and running for 76. Pitt quarterback Tom Savage followed with 424 yards and six touchdowns in the 58-55 win Sept. 21. Troy quarterback Corey Robinson was 35-of-45 passing for 354 yards with two touchdowns Sept. 28.

Duke's defense has improved over the last three games, all wins, and has created six interceptions. Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas threw for 214 yards but had four interceptions in Duke's 13-10 win Oct. 26 in Blacksburg, Va.

Duke has allowed 216 passing yards per game and 13 passing touchdowns in eight games this season.

Whether NC State plays fifth-year senior Brandon Mitchell or redshirt junior Pete Thomas at quarterback (or both), they'll need to play mistake-free and find the holes in Duke's defense that existed earlier in the season.

2. Duke and NC State both have good weapons in close games. Either team will be in field goal range from about the 31-yard line or closer, though the Blue Devils could be within range once they reach the 36.

Duke sophomore kicker Ross Martin has made 6 of 8 field goal attempts, including a 51- and a 53-yarder in the 13-10 win at Virginia Tech.

Martin's success isn't a fluke. He earned honorable mention All-ACC last year by going 20 of 23 with a 52-yarder and another from 50. He has made 79 of 80 extra points and has 12 touchbacks this season out of 45 kickoffs.

NC State junior kicker Niklas Sade has been consistent throughout the season, connecting on 17 of 19 field goal attempts with a long of 48 yards. He made four field goals against UNC last Saturday. Sade's only misses came on a 51-yarder and another from 48. He has 26 touchbacks on 42 kickoffs this season.

3. NC State has been running the ball well with sophomore running back Shadrach Thornton the last two games, but the Blue Devils' defensive strength is at linebacker and in the secondary.

The Hokies two running backs rushed for 74 yards on 22 carries, but quarterback Logan Thomas tallied 101 yards on 24 rushing attempts and a score.

Junior linebackers David Helton (weakside) and Kelby Brown (middle) anchor Duke's 4-2-5 defense, though star safety Jeremy Cash, an Ohio State transfer, has outside linebacker size at 6-2 and 210 pounds.

Helton had 19 tackles in the win over Virginia Tech, and Brown was right behind him with 14 and an interception. Helton (78 tackles), Cash (72) and Brown (61) are far and away the top three tacklers for the Blue Devils.

The slashing Thornton rushed for 173 yards and two scores on 23 carries in the 49-17 loss at Florida State Oct. 26, and followed with a solid effort in the 27-19 loss to North Carolina. The 6-1, 203-pounder tallied 90 yards on 22 carries.

Three Questions With Duke Head Coach David Cutcliffe

How was returning to practice following the bye week?

"This may be the first time many of these players have had two open dates, so you could tell they were eager to get back to practice, eager to get back to work.

"We've got our work cut out for us. North Carolina State is a team that we don't play often. We've played them twice since we've been here. Most of these guys haven't played against them, but some have. It's a big game for us for lots of reasons, mostly because it's a crosstown rival.

"A lot of our guys that play are from North Carolina, and they're a big part of our team. I think they understand the importance of the game."

How did you use the open date?

"I think it was good timing. I think it helped us. It helped us emotionally and mentally, there's no doubt. It gave us time to talk about what lies in front of us. Everybody's aware on this team of what happened a year ago. We didn't win. We had all the losses, but it's easy to forget that we played good football in November. People kind of just assume that you didn't play well when you didn't win, and that's not the case."

How has the defense improved?

"We've done a nice job of adjusting and having things available. This goes all the way back to spring practice and rebuilding this defensive system. Jim Knowles has done a tremendous job in that regard. I think it's made it easier for us to adjust, to apply some new things, to find things and bring what we need in the second half. That's real.

"I think our conditioning level, the tempo and the pace that our offense goes and the tempo that we practice defensively improved our process."

Three Questions With NC State Head Coach Dave Doeren

What are your impressions of Duke this season?

"We play Duke this week, a very good team and a very well coached team. They play hard, and they remind me a lot of Northwestern when I was in the Big Ten. Those guys play hard. They are very well coached."

What does Duke like to do on offense?

"They have a few difference makers on their team. [Junior wide receiver Jamison] Crowder is a tremendous player and is one of the best punt returners I have seen in a long time. What he does on the quick screens and deep balls — he can really run. Both of their quarterbacks are athletic. They have a lot of QB run game with both of them in there. They're scoring a lot of points, almost 33 points per game.

"They protect their quarterback; they have only been sacked 10 times, which is second in the league. We have a great test."

How have they improved on defense this season?

"They're very good defensively in the red zone. Their defensive end, No. 84 [sixth-year senior Kenny Annika], is a very active, long, strong player. They have three linebackers, I don't know if I have ever seen this, in the top four of the ACC in tackles, which is pretty crazy considering they have only played eight games. All three of them are active, No. 59 [junior] Kelby Brown, is kind of a throwback. I like watching him. He plays over bent knees, he's square, he plays hard using his hands.

"It's going to be a great game. I look forward to playing a team that is well coached and plays as hard as they do.

"Obviously, they're winning on the road and at home, so you know they are a good football team. They do a good job in the third and fourth quarter."

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