Everything You Need To Know: Louisville at Duke

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Thursday), ESPN

Spread: Louisville -20, O/U 60 (Caesars Sportsbook)

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In a 2016 battle between two future first round draft picks, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Duke’s Daniel Jones battled in a closer-than-expected contest. It would be the eventual Heisman Trophy winner that would get the edge, as Jackson combined for 325 total yards (181 pass, 144 rush) and two total touchdowns in a 24-14 win. The Cardinals rushed for 288 yards on 8.2 yards per carry, including an 80-yard touchdown run from Jeremy Smith. Jones finished 14-of-21 for 129 yards and two touchdowns passing.

Louisville leads the all-time series 2-0.

2021 Duke Blue Devils at a Glance

In the five years since Louisville and Duke last played, it has been an up-and-down run for the Blue Devils. Duke went 7-6 and 8-5 in 2017 and 2018, respectively (with bowl victories in each season).

However, Duke will now have three straight losing seasons heading into 2022. Duke finished 5-7 in 2019, and 2-9 in 2020. In head coach David Cutcliffe’s 14th season, the Blue Devils are 3-7 and riding a six-game losing streak heading into Thursday.

Duke Offense Breakdown

Louisville is coming off a dominant win where they shut down the ACC’s best running back, and now they get to face the second-leading rusher in the conference.

Any discussion about this Duke offense has to start with running back Matteo Durant. He’s a very solid back that has a decent combination of speed and power, and he is a reliable receiver for this offense. Durant is third on the team in receptions (23), yards (236), and second on the team with two receiving touchdowns. He tends to get his bigger runs when he can bounce them outside, which Louisville has done a better job at preventing this season.

The passing game has been decent at times this season, but has slumped over the last month against ACC competition. The Blue Devils have completed just 51% of their passes in the last four games, and averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt in that span.

However, it should get a boost if starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg returns after missing last week’s game. He enters Thursday’s game as the ACC leader in completion percentage (69.3%), and he has very solid touch on his throws. He can also run and extend plays with his feet, and is a decent running threat with six rushing touchdowns on the season.

Duke has two reliable receivers in Jalon Calhoun and Jake Bobo, who have reeled in just over 50% of all completed passes. Calhoun is averaging 14 yards per catch and can really go in the slot. Mike Bobo excels as an outside receiver and he’s had some monster outings; in Duke’s three wins, he’s averaged nine receptions and just over 100 yards per game. However, Bobo is only averaging 33.75 yards per game over his last four outings.

Even with some decent playmakers at running back and receiver, the Blue Devils have only scored 20+ points once in six conference games this season, and have yet to average 6+ yards per play against ACC foes.

Players to Watch: RB Matteo Durant (1,099 rushing yards, 5.0 YPC, nine TDs); WR Jalon Calhoun (45 rec., 630 yards, three TDs); QB Gunnar Holmberg (2,034 passing yards, 69% completion, seven TDs, six INTs)

Duke Defense Breakdown

The Duke defense statistically ranks among the worst in the Power Five. The Blue Devils are 129th out of 130 FBS schools in total defense (499.4 yards allowed per game), and their 6.9 yards per play allowed is third-worst among Power Five schools (only TCU and Kansas are worse with 7.07 and 7.30 yards per play, respectively).

Linebacker Shaka Heyward is a playmaker on this team, he has solid instincts and can make plays all across the field. He’s the team leaders in tackles, TFLs, and second in sacks. Defensive tackle Dewayne Carter anchors the front seven as a solid two-way threat on the line, he leads the team with four forced fumbles. Other than defensive end R.J. Oben (six TFLs, four sacks, INT), a lot of Duke’s front seven hasn’t stepped up to make any major plays for this team.

The lack of playmakers in the front seven has really been evident in the last three games for Duke. The Blue Devils have allowed 200+ rushing yards in each of the last three games, and 400+ passing yards in two of the last three. While we can’t expect Louisville to put up 400+ passing yards, the huge chunks of yardage gained on the ground is significant.

They’ve also had issues with getting negative plays to help themselves on third down. Duke ranks 11th in the ACC in tackles for loss and sacks, and against a Louisville offensive line that has been fantastic at preventing negative plays, the Cardinals should have a plus-matchup there.

Duke’s secondary is among the best in pass breakups (42) and defended passes (50), but their 9.3 yards per attempt ranks second-to-last in the conference. They’ve also only allowed 57% completion, which is fourth best in the ACC. Safety Lummie Young IV is a great playmaker with 64 tackles (second on the team), a team-high seven PBUs, and an interception this season. Duke has three more guys in the secondary with four or more PBUs, and the aforementioned Dewayne Carter also has three PBUs himself.

Players to Watch: LB Shaka Heyward (79 tackles, 11 TFLs, 3.0 sacks); DT Dewayne Carter (7.5 TFLs, four forced fumbles); S Lummie Young IV (64 tackles, seven PBUs, INT)

Keys to the Game

  • Louisville must stop the run, but not be too aggressive in doing so

Louisville should do what they’ve done against Boston College and Syracuse; go all out to stop the run, and prevent Duke from getting into third-and-manageable situations. In both games, Louisville just kept sending it on a blitz and daring the quarterback to try and beat them with their arm.

However, one major difference is that Dennis Grosel (Boston College) and Garrett Shrader (Syracuse) had significantly lower completion percentages than Holmberg. So I could see Duke using Louisville’s overaggressive tendency to take advantage in a few play-action spots. It will just come down to whether or not Holmberg is actually capable of taking advantage with his two top targets, or making plays with his feet.

  • Can Louisville replicate its success on offense from last week?

I think for Louisville’s offense to be successful on Thursday, it will likely have to do most of the same things it did against Syracuse. Run the ball effectively, and then use play action to blow the top off the defense.

What was most fascinating about last week was that even in just 18 pass attempts, Louisville had a very dynamic passing game going against Syracuse. They were able to slice through the Syracuse defense with quick passes that stretched the perimeter, as well as deep passes when their running game was able to set the tone early against them. If Louisville is able to establish the run and parlay that into a strong play-action game — as it did successfully last week — Louisville could be on its way to securing bowl eligibility.

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