Wake Forest is riding a 12-game winning streak in the series with Duke.

Know the opponent: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Wake Forest is riding a 12-game winning streak in the series with Duke.

Duke fans know this week’s opponent all too well – the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. The Blue Devils have dropped 12 in a row to their in-state rival, and on Saturday, face another talented Wake Forest team when they travel to Winston Salem. Jim Grobe’s squad is 3-1 on the year; much like Duke, they were blown out on the road by a top-10 opponent, but have found ways to win at home. To give us an inside look at the Demon Deacons, BDN welcomes in Dan Collins of the Winston-Salem Journal. A native of North Carolina and veteran journalist, Collins has covered the Wake Forest beat since 1992. BDN is thrilled to have his expertise on this year’s Wake Forest team.

As Duke looks to build their football program and compete in the ACC, they look to Wake Forest’s recent success as a blueprint. To what do you attribute the Demon Deacons’ run under Coach Grobe? Coach Grobe recently stated he wasn’t sure how good this particular Wake Forest team is. What is your overall assessment of this squad, and where do you think they will end up in the ACC Atlantic Division?

The prevailing factors to Grobe’s success, as I see them, have been the redshirting program that has allowed good but largely untapped high school players to grow and develop into competitive and sometimes standout college players, and a sharp and (until recently) exceedingly stable staff with a keen eye for overlooked talent. As for this year’s team, I asked Grobe Tuesday how good is his team. He said he has no idea. Truth is, I don’t either.  If the return of Nikita Whitlock stabilizes the defense and the patchwork offensive line comes together, the Deacons have a chance to win eight or nine games. If none of that happens, they could also lose nine in a row, like in 2010.

Tanner Price has quickly matured into one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks, and he has a talented weapon in WR Michael Campanaro, who ranks at the top of the ACC in receptions this year. With a veteran in Josh Harris at RB, Wake Forest seems to have the potential to put up points this year. Last week, they were able to put up 49 points on Army, but struggled earlier in the year and rank 10th overall in the conference in scoring. What has been the source of the offensive inconsistency so far this year?

The strength of this team is that it has four players who are first-team All-ACC caliber players in Price, Campanaro, Whitlock and cornerback Bud Noel. And guys like Harris, linebackers Mike Olson and Justin Jackson and cornerback Kevin Johnson could be as well by the time their careers are done. Obviously, no one expects all of them to make first-team All-ACC, but they match up well with any other players in the conference at their position. Price wasn’t good at FSU, and he didn’t have a great game against Army. But he did drive the Deacons 93 yards for a game-winning touchdown in the final 6 1/2 minutes against North Carolina, so I don’t believe anyone is worried about that position. The biggest reasons for the inconsistency has been the revamped offensive line with only one returning starter (center Garrick Williams) from last year and the lack of another front-line receiver to complement Campanaro.

Much like the Blue Devils, the Demon Deacons have allowed points and yards to opponents this year, and both units have seen their share of injuries. Aside from the health issues, what has been the source of Wake Forest’s defensive struggles early in the season? Is there any truth to the rumor that Nikita Whitlock will play Saturday, and how effective do you expect him to be?

Grobe has attributed much of the defensive woes to the fact the Deacons have played a team they knew little about in Liberty, one of the best teams in the nation in FSU and an Army team that leads the FBS in rushing. That said, the loss of Whitlock for the past 2 1/2 games has been huge. Senior linebacker Riley Haynes called Whitlock the heart and soul of the Wake defense, and anyone close to the program would agree. Whitlock said he will return from his sprained ankle to play this week. Grobe said he’s more concerned about how well Whitlock will be able to play. Whitlock didn’t really do much in his first game and a half against Liberty and North Carolina, so it’s time he started wreaking some havoc.

Despite Wake Forest’s dominance in the series, the Blue Devils and Demon Deacons have produced some memorable and competitive games over the past decade. Many have pointed to this becoming a more intense football rivalry than Duke and UNC. What is the Wake Forest perspective on the Duke rivalry? How important is this week’s game to the Demon Deacons and their season?

All the people I talk with openly acknowledge how lucky they’ve been in the series. Having seen them all, I agree. I can think of three plays right off the top of my head that decided games that Duke probably should have won, the flubbed chip shot by Joe Surgan that Chip Vaughn blocked with his elbow in 2006, Thad Lewis’ underthrown pass to Eron Riley that Alphonso Smith intercepted in the endzone in 2008 and Chris Givens’ 66-yard touchdown last season that was the only play the Deacons really made in a second half otherwise dominated by the Blue Devils. Wake, under Grobe, has generally been better than Duke, but that would in no way explain the streak. As for the importance of this season’s game, Wake plays at Maryland next week, has a week off, and then plays at Virginia. The Deacons have a good shot at both, which would make them 5-3 even with a loss Saturday. But I doubt they’re thinking of Duke as anything but a must win.

Both Duke and Wake Forest rank in the bottom half of the ACC in a number of important statistical categories, such as scoring defense and rushing offense, but both teams have put together a 3-1 record in 2012. Many expect this year’s game to play out much like the 2010 shoot-out in Winston-Salem, where the two teams combined to put up over 100 points. How do you predict Saturday’s contest will play out?

My guess it will take quite a few points to win the game, in that both offenses are highly capable and both defenses still need to prove themselves. As for predicting who will win, that’s really never been my thing.  I have been told by people who are into wagering that you should never bet against a streak. On the other hand, streaks are made to be broken. So I’ll weasel out of this one. The game, after all, will be played. We’ll find out who wins in due time.

State Farm Champions Classic – Duke vs Kentucky go on sale Monday

DURHAM, N.C. — Tickets for the 2012 State Farm Champions Classic will go on sale Monday, Oct. 1. The second annual event will be played Tuesday, Nov. 13, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The State Farm Champions Classic features an ESPN doubleheader of Kansas vs. Michigan State at 7 p.m., followed by Duke vs. Kentucky at 9:30 p.m.

Ticket prices are $125, $90 and $75 and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com, by calling Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000 or by visiting the Georgia Dome box office (open Mon.-Fri. from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.).

The four teams playing in the State Farm Champions Classic have combined for 18 NCAA Championship titles, with each winning one in the last five years. In the inaugural event last November at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Kentucky defeated Kansas, 75-65, and Duke beat Michigan State, 74-69. That game elevated Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski past Bobby Knight for most Division I wins by a coach.

For more information about the State Farm Champions Classic, visit the official web site at TheChampionsClassic.com, follow on Twitter @ChampionClassic and “Like” the event on Facebook at Facebook.com/ChampionsClassic.

Friday Night Lights – Future Duke Footballers Shine

Welcome back to another edition of Friday Night Lights as Blue Devil Nation takes you on a tour around the United States, checking on gridiron performances of future Blue Devils. This edition starts in Northern Virginia as we check in with Defensive Back Evrett Edwards.

Edwards had three receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown as Woodbridge defeated Gar-Field 48-20. After the game, Edwards stated, “It went well. We had almost 500 yards rushing, a great rivalry game.” On the defensive side of the ball, Edwards was credited with four tackles.

In North Carolina, after Statesville defeated North Iredell 42-0, cornerback Breon Borders exclaimed, “We dominated the whole game…but me individually, there isn’t really much to say. I didn’t let my receiver off the line the whole game. They didn’t pass to my side one time!”  Borders recorded four solo tackles in the win.

In California, running back Joseph Ajeigbe rushed for 127 yards in Norco’s 39-16 victory over previously undefeated La Serna. La Serna built a 16-6 lead in the first quarter, but Norco responded by reeling off 33 straight points. Discussing his role in the victory, Ajeigbe declared, “I was more a decoy this game. They were loading eight in the box in preparation for the run.”

Looking toward next week, Ajeigbe stated, “This week we have a big game coming up. We’re playing nationally ranked Mission Hills Alemany. It should be a good test for us as a team as we prepare to go into league play.”

In Georgia, defensive tackle Mike Ramsay described The Walker School’s victory, “We won a tough one 21-14 over Mt. Zion. We are now 4-0 for the first time in Walker School history.”

Heading to Texas, offensive lineman Austin Davis commented on Mansfield’s loss to South Grand Prairie, “We lost on a game-winning field goal 21-23. We rushed for 200 yards and had an average game. I did a good job and handled my opponent.”

This week’s edition closes out by checking in with three prospects in Florida.

Dual threat quarterback Parker Boehme passed for 148 yards (10-18-0) and rushed for 81 more but Sandalwood came out on the short end of a 23-21 decision against Fletcher. Here is a video clip.

T.J. Douglas ran for 94 yards on 12 carries, including a 69-yard touchdown and tossed a 31-yard touchdown pass as Fort Myers defeated Riverdale 15-0 to improve to 4-0 on the season. Douglas is number 10 in green in the video clip.

Wide Receiver Johnell Barnes scored a touchdown on a four yard run as Ft. Myers Dunbar blasted Lake Placid 49-0.

Opportunity is at hand for the Duke program

Conner Vernon will get a lot of attention from the Wake secondary and other Blue Devils will need to step up to stop a long losing streak. Copyright BDN Photo

Coming into the 2012-13 football season and considering the schedule, it was clear that the Duke Blue Devils needed to pile up some wins early in the season in order to have any hopes for a bowl invite. So far, so good for Coach Cutcliffe and his troops, currently in their fifth season under his leadership. Duke needed to take care of business against three teams they were favored to defeat: Florida International, North Carolina Central and Memphis. They did so against all three, and now the Blue Devils stand 3-1, with the only loss coming at the hands of the #8 team in the nation, Stanford. But the three Duke wins came against teams with a combined 3-9 record, which makes one wonder where the program actually stands, despite that healthy-looking 3-1 record.

Now we’ll find out how far the Blue Devils have come as the ACC schedule begins, with Wake Forest and Virginia up first. It’s no secret that Duke has struggled mightily with the Deacons. Despite a number of games being close, Wake has dominated Duke in terms of wins and losses. At times, Duke has seemed to be snakebitten as they play Wake Forest close, only to ultimately fall short.

The question is whether Duke can shake free from habit against Wake and get a victory, and in the process keep their bowl hopes alive. Kickoff is Saturday at 12:30 in Winston-Salem. The Blue Devils need to do more than just be competitive. They need to pass the eyeball test, and show everyone that they are serious. While Duke’s team has obviously improved, and the program has upgraded its recruiting and its facilities, they’ve simply got to start winning games like this one, not only for the sake of this year’s team but to help solidify the fan base and create excitement again around this program going forward. Quite simply, Duke’s program is at the doorstep of turning the corner, finally.

But once again, Wake stands in the way. It is no secret that Duke has looked towards the Wake Forest program as a model on how to compete in the ACC. Many in Duke media circles have been pointing to this game all summer long as a potential tipping point game if the Devils could come in at 3-1. They have taken care of business to this point. This is a most critical game for Duke, one which many feel will make or break their bowl dreams, as the Blue Devils must contend with a brutal schedule the rest of the way. Now, does this mean this is the biggest game in Coach Cut’s Duke career to date?

If this is not the biggest game, it is close. If you’ve ever had the luxury to enter Coach Cutcliffe’s office as I have, you will see some game balls on the shelves. Each ball represents a big win in his tenure. The first is from the 2008 victory over James Madison, which was his opening day win in his first campaign in Durham; another is the ball from the win three weeks later over Virginia, which was Duke’s first ACC victory since 2004; and there is a game ball from the 2009 triumph over N.C. State, which was the program’s first road win over an ACC team since 2003. There is little doubt that breaking the Deacons’ 12-game winning streak over Duke would provide another milestone win (and another football for display) and further evidence of a program finally headed in the right direction.

A lot of questions will be answered in a game where Duke simply needs to make one more big play than its opponent. This ability has eluded them to date, but they’re going to need it against the Deacons, a team which was throttled by Florida State but defeated North Carolina. Make no mistake, Wake Forest is clearly the second most talented team Duke will have faced thus far this season, and Wake will remain confident that they can always find a way to come out with a win until the Blue Devils decide they’ve had enough. Saturday would be a good day to send that message.

The table has been set for the Blue Devils. With a win they can not only start a winning streak of their own, but they can further distance the program from the struggles of the past, and help their fan base do the same. I expect two offensive-minded teams to be on the field of battle for longer than the normally allotted television time and the game will (as usual) likely be a back-and-forth affair. The Blue Devils simply need to make that one crucial play this go-round.

So again, is this the biggest game for Coach Cutcliffe since he’s been at Duke? You can make the argument either way. But if it’s not, it’s close.

Two more TD recptions for Conner Vernon.

Conner Vernon and Jela Duncan talk Duke’s win over Memphis

DURHAM – Duke senior WR Conner Vernon had another big game Saturday night, finishing with 120 yards and 2 TDs. Freshman RB Jela Duncan paced the Blue Devil rushing attack with the best game of his young career, piling up 88 yards on just 9 carries. BDN was on hand to speak with the two offensive stars after Saturday’s victory.

Conner Vernon

Jela Duncan