Injury-depleted Blue Devils come to Waco to face the Bears
A pair of undefeated Power 5 conference opponents are set to square off in Waco as the Duke Blue Devils travel to meet the Baylor Bears at McLane Stadium. Duke, knocking on the door of the AP Top 25 after an impressive 21-7 win at Northwestern in Week 2, finds itself an underdog in large part because of significant injuries suffered through the first two games of the season. But Baylor, which has already surpassed its 2017 win total, looks like an improved team compared to the squad that lost 34-20 to the Blue Devils last season.
Duke at Baylor
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Baylor -6
Three Things to Watch
1. The injury report
Duke lost two of its best players during last week’s win. Starting quarterback Daniel Jones suffered a fractured collarbone against the Wildcats, and cornerback Mark Gilbert was lost for the season because of a hip injury.
Jones, a junior entering his third season as the starter for head coach David Cutcliffe, completed 74.4 percent of his passes for 389 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions across the first two games of the season. He has already undergone surgery to repair the fracture and is out indefinitely. Gilbert, a potential All-ACC cornerback, recorded just four tackles this year but posted 35 stops and six interceptions in 2017.
Aaron Young, who caught four passes for 114 yards and one touchdown against Army but missed the Northwestern game with a hamstring injury, is questionable to return to the field against Baylor. Safety Jeremy McDuffie also sat out the win over the Wildcats (and played just 13 snaps against Army), and he is also questionable.
Baylor also has some injury concerns. Starting safety Verkedric Vaughns is questionable to play with a lower body injury, and senior reserve offensive lineman Josh Malin is out indefinitely with a knee injury.
2. Baylor’s balanced offense
Matt Rhule’s Bears still have a long way to go to get back into contention in the Big 12, but the team has taken a big step forward — especially on offense. Baylor has been impressively balanced through two weeks as the team has produced two 300-yard passing performances, along with two different 100-yard rushers and two different 100-yard receivers.
Running backs John Lovett and JaMycal Hasty both surpassed 100 rushing yards in the victory over Abilene Christian. The Bears racked up 295 yards on the ground in Week 1, and quarterbacks Charlie Brewer and Jalan McClendon combined for 311 rushing yards in the win. Last week, Baylor relied more heavily on the passing game as Brewer threw for 328 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Receivers Jalen Hurd and Denzel Mims, one of the most talented receiving duos in the conference, both caught eight passes for more than 130 yards and a TD.
3. Elite linebackers
They don’t get much national attention, but Duke linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys are arguably the most productive duo in the nation, if not the outright best. Giles-Harris amassed 125 total tackles as a sophomore last year — the second consecutive season in which he surpassed 100 stops — and tallied 16 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks and an interception. So far in 2018, Giles-Harris ranks third on the team with 17 tackles. He has also recorded half a sack, two pass breakups and two quarterback hurries.
Humphreys is tied with defensive back Dylan Singleton on the team leaderboard with 21 tackles this season and has pitched in 0.5 TFLs, one QB hurry, and a blocked kick against Army. The senior recorded 70 total tackles in 2017, along with 9.0 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception, which he returned 22 yards for a touchdown.
Baylor has shown improvement offensively, and the Bears have proven successful both running and passing in 2018. However, the defenses Abilene Christian and UTSA fielded in the first two weeks are a far cry from a Duke unit that has held opponents to a modest 4.78 yards per play so far this season and boasts two of the best linebackers in the country. Expect the Blue Devils to provide much more resistance than either of Baylor’s first two opponents.
On the other side of the football, Duke quarterback Quentin Harris will make his first career start against the Bears. Harris was 7-for-10 passing for 73 yards and one touchdown without an interception in limited action as Jones’ backup last season, and he completed both passes he attempted in relief last week for 12 yards. Harris is also capable of making plays with his feet, and he’s gained 24 yards on seven carries this year. He scored twice on the ground in 2017.
Harris is a solid backup, but Jones is an All-ACC candidate, and he will be badly missed. The Baylor defense, which has shown early signs of improvement after ranking ninth in the Big 12 in total defense last season (456.9 yards allowed per game), will provide a test for the junior signal caller. We should see a heavy dose of sophomore running backs Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson, who have split carries and combined for 178 rushing yards and two TDs over the first two games.
Expect a close contest, and though Baylor has the home-field advantage and the healthier team, Duke has played like an ACC Coastal contender early this season while Baylor is still rebuilding.
Prediction: Duke 24, Baylor 21
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.