Duke isn’t going to stop the dynamic Clemson wide receivers duo of Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins.
But the Blue Devils hope they can limit their effectiveness.
“You’re not going to stop a team like Clemson, you have to minimize the damage,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got to minimize some of the big plays we gave up last week. You can’t afford to let that become a theme. We have to have a game offensively where we try to keep them off the field, which we couldn’t accomplish.”
Watkins and Hopkins represent the most dynamic receiving duo Duke (6-3, 3-2 in the ACC) has faced this season. And they’re coming to town, along with the rest of the No. 10-ranked Clemson squad (7-1, 4-1), following Duke’s worst pass defense performance of the season.
Last week in Tallahassee, Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel completed eight passes, but they went for 282 yards and two touchdowns (that’s an average of 35.3 yards per completion).
Clemson, meanwhile, boosts a more effective quarterback than the Seminoles. Tajh Boyd is 10th in the nation in passing efficiency and leads the ACC in total offense with an average of 326.8 yards per game, thanks to his dual-threat abilities.
His primary targets — Watkins and Hopkins — are among the ACC leaders as well. Watkins was voted the ACC Preseason Player of the Year after winning ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 2011 but, so far, Hopkins has had the more dynamic season. The league leader with 10 touchdown receptions, Hopkins, a junior, has 58 receptions for 909 yards, with four 100-yard games.
Watkins showed signs of the ability many had been expecting to see all season last Thursday against Wake Forest, racking up 202 receiving yards in a 42-13 rout. That set a school record, breaking the one Hopkins set earlier this season when he collected 197 against Boston College.
“I did read and notice (Wake Forest) coach (Jim) Grobe’s comments afterward, and he plays them every year — he was just shocked at their speed and how fast they were,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s improved. Obviously, those guys have. So you have to prepare yourself for the shock, and you have to compete every snap.”
Duke can’t mimic the size or speed of the two, both of whom are listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, in practice. As far as schemes go, Clemson doesn’t use anything out of the ordinary, cornerback Ross Cockrell said. The Tigers let their playmakers do what they do best.
“They pretty much just rely on their athleticism,” Cockrell said. “They’re pretty good receivers in open space. You don’t have to do much to get them open.”
While on paper the physical mismatch looks similar to the one Duke faced last week against Florida State, the Blue Devils do have the benefit of playing this game at home, where they’re undefeated. It will be the first memorable prime time November game in Durham in some time, giving Duke a chance to redeem itself after last week’s showing.
“Disappointed, you better believe we’re disappointed that we didn’t perform well on a big stage,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re not discouraged. We’re not embarrassed by that fact, it’s just a fact. We didn’t play well.”
As far as specific plans for stopping Watkins and Hopkins, Duke was going to emphasize technique, just like last week. If Cutcliffe could, though, Duke would get more creative.
“Play with 12 or 13,” he said when asked what he thought Duke should do defensively. “They have as many weapons as anybody in football.”