There are several looming 'what ifs?' for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons this season.
What if Chris Barclay hadn't been suspended for the opener against Vanderbilt, a game won by the Commodores 24-20?
What if the Deacons could have held down Florida State for another quarter at Doak Campbell Stadium, a game that was significantly more competitive than the 41-24 final score indicates.
What if Wake Forest hadn't blown a big lead at Boston College on their way to a 35-30 loss in Chestnut Hill?
All the what ifs have made the Demon Deacons a 3-5 team entering Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday, rather than a potentially 5-3 team or maybe even 6-2.
They may be one of the most explosive 3-5 teams in America, though, led by Barclay at tailback but not lacking in other weapons.
With it being senior day in Durham, it's a safe bet the Devils are going to be emotionally geared up for the game, but will it be enough to get a second victory in 2005?
A look at a few offensive and defensive keys to the game:
1) Drum up another big play
Ronnie Drummer's big plays over the last three weeks have certainly grabbed the attention of the rest of the ACC. When Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe popped the Duke tape in the VCR this week, he saw a Duke offense that is largely stagnant, except for when #40 gets his hands on the ball.
The main play for the success has come on a reverse where Drummer lines up in the slot and runs across the formation to take a handoff after the intial action of the play goes to the strong side.
It went for big yardage in each of the last two games and also was the catalyst for Requan Boyette's 78-yard touchdown run against Florida State, as the Seminoles cheated to Drummer after the ball had already been given to Boyette over the left side.
Duke needs to figure out another way to cash in on that play this week. It'd be great if Drummer breaks another big one, and odds are the Devils will certainly give him a chance to. However, his big play threat presents a great opportunity to open up other offensive areas. Drummer the decoy could be just as effective as Drummer the ball carrier.
What will Duke come up with this week? If they get something successful, they can have a very quality offensive performance.
2) Breakout receiver
Duke needs one of its young receivers to have a coming out party against the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest is giving up nearly 270 yards through the air per game, which has to be welcome news to a Blue Devil passing attack that has been basically dormant.
Nobody is predicting a 300 yard outburst for the Duke passing game, but it would help immensely if the Devils can at least show the ability to move the ball through the air when it needs to.
Eron Riley has been close to having that type of game, but drops and quarterback pressures have prevented it from really happening.
While Wake has allowed substantial yardage, they've been adept at forcing turnovers in the secondary.
Ted Roof says the offense will continue to be increasingly aggressive as a very young Duke team gets more experience, so expect Zack Asack and company to take their shots, but they can't afford to give the ball away.
There's a fine line between aggressiveness and stupidity, and asking a true freshman quarterback to walk that line is certainly risky. But Asack should have enough games under his belt now to know what is and isn't a good risk to take.
3) Encore performance?
Boyette made a name for himself last week with his 100 yard performance against the Seminoles, and Duke needs more production from him Saturday.
Though a bulk of that yardage came on one long run, Boyette is brimming with confidence as he's seeing his role increase in the offense. With Justin Boyle slightly banged up, it's even more important for Boyette to supply rushing yardage between the tackles.
Drummer is Duke's number one offensive threat, but the Devils need a guy that can gain yardage the conventional way on the ground to truly be able to unleash Drummer's speed. Boyette and Boyle need to deliver in that role against Wake Forest.
Running behind an improving offensive line, there should be some opportunities for both Boyle and Boyette and to keep the sticks moving and keep the Duke defense off the field.
1) Where it all starts
There are several weapons on the Wake Forest offense, but the first point of emphasis for the Duke defense must always be Barclay. He's the guy that can put the team on his back and single handedly dominate.
His backup Micah Andrews is basically just as dangerous, especially in the Jim Grobe offense that has suited Wake Forest perfectly.
Wake is putting up nearly 200 yards per game on the ground and has only had one game where they didn't rush for at least 100. That was last week against North Carolina State in a game they still won thanks in large part to two defensive touchdowns.
The Deacon ground game utilizes misdirection very well and feasts on getting defenders out of position for just a split second, which is enough to spring a back for several yards.
Duke has done a decent job against the run this season, with a few exceptions, but they will need to be at their very best to bottle up this outfit.
Discipline will be key in the front seven, as each defender must stay in his lane and not get caught in overpursuit only to see a ball carrier sprinting by through a vacated area. That's a tough task, especially for freshman like Clifford Respress and Michael Brown.
Not only do Duke defenders have to maintain discipline, they also have to tackle well one-on-one, which has been problematic at times. Running backs like Barclay and Andrews tend to make it even more difficult.
Here's a formula that will probably ring true on Saturday:
> 150 rushing yards for Wake=easy Demon Deacon win
In each of the last two games between these two schools, Wake has topped the 200 yard mark on the ground. That can't happen this week.
2) Reverse the trend
Wake Forest has done a phenomenal job recently in the turnover department, forcing eight turnovers compared to only one giveaway over their last three outings.
For Duke to win Saturday, they need to get those numbers heading in the opposite direction.
While the offense must do its part to protect the football, the defense needs a couple of difference making turnovers.
What is a difference making turnover?
One that leads to quick points, like Wake got in their 27-19 win against the Wolfpack. When the Duke defense has a field position edge, they need to turn up the heat and force a mistake or two.
John Talley has certainly proven he can make a big play. The final home game of the season is a great time to make one or two more.
If Wake Forest quarterback Cory Randolph is able to go on his injured ankle, he poses a serious threat through the air. Don't forget, however, why Grobe had reservations about him at QB at the start of the year. He has been turnover prone in the past.
Duke would love to turn back the clock on him Saturday.
3) Get off the field (and don't help them)
Florida State put up 55 points against Duke last week, but that number could have been significantly lower if Duke could have gotten off the field when they had opportunities to on third and fourth downs.
The two most glaring examples resulted in 14 Seminole points. Philip Alexander was hit for a personal foul on Florida State quarterback Drew Weatherford after a third down pass had fallen incomplete in the first quarter. That kept the drive alive and resulted in seven points.
Then, in the fourth quarter, when it looked as though Duke surely had Antone Smith stopped for a loss on fourth-and-two, Smith somehow escaped trouble and went all the way for a 45-yard score.
When the Devils get opportunities to end drives, they desperately need to take advantage of them and get the offense back on the field. Even if a third down conversion doesn't lead to points, it helps flip field position, a battle Duke has struggled to win all season.
The discipline the defense needs to stop the offense itself will also be needed to avoid the silly penalties that can bring momentum to a screeching halt.
Final word and prediction
Is this a winnable game for Duke? Yes it is. But it's also a potential blowout loss. Expect the Devils to summon every last weapon in their arsenal to come away with a win in their final showing at Wallace Wade Stadium this year.
They are a still a wounded team, nursing several players back to health, but there are some good players ready to go to battle Saturday.
My gut feeling is that this will be a day when Duke fans walk away from the stadium extraordinarily proud of the grit and fight their team showed, but shaking their heads at a tough loss.
Randolph, Barclay, and Andrews will prove to be the difference in the end.
Wake Forest 30-22