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Can Duke Handle the Hokies' Pressure?

In three of four games this season, Duke’s offensive line has allowed zero or one sacks. But Coach David Cutcliffe is most concerned with how his offensive line will play this weekend against Virginia Tech. That is mostly because of the Hokies' pass rush.

“You’re not going to get much time to throw the football,” Cutcliffe said as his Blue Devils (2-2, 0-0 ACC) prepare to face the No. 6 Hokies on Saturday. “And they can make you miserable.”

In its 31-7 win over Miami last Saturday, Virginia Tech (3-1, 1-0) made it a miserable afternoon for Hurricanes quarterback Jacory Harris. Although Harris had been a sharp and well-protected passer before the game, he left with mud and grass stains all over his jersey after the Hokies harassed him with blitzes.

In the game, linebacker Cody Grimm estimated Virginia Tech ran a blitz on three of every four plays. He told reporters it was the most blitzes the Hokies had run all year. But in the Hokies’ defense under coordinator Bud Foster, it can be tough to distinguish when Virginia Tech is blitzing and when it is dropping into coverage.

“The good thing about Coach Foster, our defense, we always look like we’re running the same defense,” Grimm said. “Sometimes we’ll bring the house and sometimes we don’t. Credit him for that as much as me disguising my blitzes. I can make it look like I’m playing in zone when sometimes I’m coming on a blitz.”

A momentum-swinging play came on a blitz on Miami’s first possession. Rover Dorian Porch blindsided Harris, forcing and recovering a fumble at Miami’s 11-yard line. It set up a quick touchdown, giving the Hokies a 7-0 lead and confidence. In all, Harris was sacked three times and hurried three more. It seemed like the Hokies were in the backfield on every play.

Like Miami, Duke’s strength is its passing offense (if, perhaps, to a less dangerous degree). The Blue Devils rank 25th nationally in passing offense, with 267.25 yards per game.

Quarterbacks Thaddeus Lewis and Sean Renfree have spread the ball around, and four wide receivers have at least 10 catches. Lewis, a senior, is the ACC’s active leader in career touchdown passes (52). Renfree, a redshirt freshman, has shown a nice passing touch, completing 67.4 percent of his passes and throwing four touchdowns to one interception.

But against the Hokies’ strong and speedy pass rush, the Blue Devils’ quarterbacks might not been afford the time to make the same throws as they did against division I-AA opponents North Carolina Central and Richmond. On Saturday, Duke should be feeling the heat.

“Their pressure,” Cutcliffe said, “is without a doubt the toughest thing to deal with.”

By Mark Viera  |  October 1, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
 
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