It’s not the marquee matchup it has been so often on the hardwood, but bowl eligibility will hang in the balance as the Blue Devils (4-5, 2-3 ACC) host Syracuse (3-6, 0-5) at Wallace Wade Stadium. Since a 3-1 start, David Cutcliffe's Duke team has lost three straight and four of five. The Orange, led by head coach Dino Babers, have lost four straight and still do not own a win over a Power 5 program.
Saturday's contest in Durham will be just the fourth-ever meeting between the programs. Duke won in the Carrier Dome in 2014 by a 27-10 score. Prior to that, the teams had not met since 1939.
Syracuse at Duke
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 16 at 4 p.m.
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Duke -9.5
When Syracuse Has the Ball
Syracuse ranks just 11th in the ACC in total and scoring offense, and those numbers would be lower had it not racked up big numbers against the likes of Western Michigan and Holy Cross early in the season. In ACC play, Syracuse is averaging just 16 points per contest. The biggest problem for the Orange is the offensive line. This season, Syracuse has allowed 45 sacks, which is tied with Old Dominion for the most in the country.
Quarterback Tommy DeVito is a dual-threat who has largely avoided mistakes, but he isn’t going to instill much fear into opposing defenses. DeVito has thrown 15 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions, but eight of those touchdown tosses came against Western Michigan and Holy Cross. Senior Moe Neal and junior Abdul Adams are a serviceable duo in the backfield who have combined for seven touchdown rushes. Junior wide receiver Trishton Jackson may be Syracuse’s best offensive player; he leads the team with 51 catches, 780 receiving yards and eight touchdown grabs.
Statistically, the Duke defense ranks fifth in the ACC in scoring defense and seventh in total defense, but as is the case with the Syracuse offense, much of that is skewed by weak early-season opponents and one solid performance at Virginia Tech. The Blue Devils are allowing more than 35 points per game during their current skid. Duke isn’t a great pass-rushing team, but junior Victor Dimukeje is a force to be reckoned with as he’s recorded 6.5 sacks, good for seventh in the ACC. He’ll have a chance to pad that total on Saturday.
Senior linebacker Koby Quansah leads the Blue Devils with 83 total tackles, but where they’re strongest defensively is taking the ball away. Duke is tied for third in the ACC with 16 total takeaways and nine interceptions. Cornerback Leonard Johnson and safeties Marquis Waters and Jalen Alexander all have two interceptions for the year. Syracuse has not given the ball away a lot this season.
When Duke Has the Ball
Offensively, only Georgia Tech averages fewer yards per game among ACC teams than the Blue Devils. Quarterback Quentin Harris has accounted for 20 total touchdowns this season, but his eight interceptions are tied for the most in the ACC. Since the start of October, Harris has thrown just four touchdowns and six interceptions while completing just 51 percent of his passes. As a team, the Blue Devils have been much more efficient offensively on the ground than through the air.
Harris is the top touchdown scorer on the ground with six scoring runs to go with 418 yards rushing. Deon Jackson leads Duke with 539 rushing yards to go with five touchdowns. Still, Duke averages just 3.8 yards per carry. In the passing game, the ball is spread around as four Blue Devils have between 264 and 305 yards receiving. Jalon Calhoun leads the team with 40 catches for 305 yards. Calhoun, a freshman, and senior Aaron Young each have three touchdown grabs this year.
Among ACC defenses, only Boston College gives up more yards per game than Syracuse. Following a dismal performance against the Eagles last time out, Syracuse parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Ward. Senior defensive end Alton Robinson draws the most attention, but he has only 2.5 sacks this season after recording 10 as a junior in 2018. Fellow senior Brandon Berry leads the team with 5.5 sacks.
At linebacker, Lakiem Williams is a good player, but the Orange have been gashed recently by opposing ground attacks. Syracuse gave up 496 yards to Boston College last time out with star running back AJ Dillon going for 242 yards and three scores. Prior to that, Syracuse gave up 241 yards rushing against a Florida State team that struggles up front. In the secondary, safety Evan Foster and cornerback Andre Cisco are the names to know.
If Saturday’s contest is close, both teams have good kickers in reigning Lou Groza Award winner Andre Szmyt for the Orange and Duke’s AJ Reed. Reed is 9-for-10 on field goals this season.
Given Syracuse’s struggles to stop the run in recent weeks, one would have to like Duke’s chances to move the football on the ground. Neither quarterback strikes fear into opposing defenses, but Harris is probably a better athlete than DeVito and should be able to aid in the ground game. As a team, Syracuse is averaging just 3.1 yards per rush, and the Orange offensive line probably isn’t good enough to allow time for DeVito to make throws downfield.