In its last two meetings with Northwestern, Duke has been able to mostly declaw the Wildcats’ offense.
But that hasn’t been enough for the Blue Devils to finish them.
Northwestern and its stout defense have limited Duke to just 23 points combined in the last two years, and will bring an even deeper secondary back to Durham Saturday. The Wildcats are fresh off a 31-20 win against Nevada in Week 1, in which their defense tightened up and gave up just three points in the second half.
And it’s not like Northwestern hasn’t had its way with parts of the Blue Devil defense either—quarterback Clayton Thorson torched the Blue Devils for 320 yards passing and three touchdowns in a 24-13 victory last season.
“We can’t have wasted plays and turnovers against a team like Northwestern or you’ll find yourself behind because they’re a very experienced, highly explosive offensive themselves,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’ll probably come down to the fourth quarter for either team if we both play well.”
The Wildcats have one of the best secondaries in the Big Ten, and will get cornerback Keith Watkins back from a season-ending injury he suffered during training camp last year. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said in the offseason he has NFL-level talent and is part of a deep and talented group that includes junior All-Big Ten cornerback Montre Hartage and senior safety Godwin Igwebuike, a potential early 2018 NFL Draft selection.
They didn’t showcase the extent of that ability for much of 2016 with Watkins and fellow starter Matthew Harris out for the season, ranking fifth in the conference in passing defense, but they were still able to hold Daniel Jones to a QBR of just 28.3.
“This may well be the best Northwestern team we’ve played, starting with their defense,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re physical and experienced, they’ve got [defensive backs] back in the right places.... They’re very familiar with their personnel, they’re physical and can run on defense, and they’re very well-coached.”
The Wildcats’ rushing defense was much more vulnerable last year, however—they ranked second-to-last in the conference in opponents’ rushing yards and yielded 5.5 yards per carry to Nevada last week.
But the Blue Devils were not able to crack their defensive front that bottled up Duke’s rushing offense to just 117 yards last year. The Blue Devils will have a more experienced offensive line to block for Shaun Wilson and redshirt freshman Brittain Brown, who gained 120 yards on 10 carries against N.C. Central
Duke’s offense was also hindered by turnovers in last year’s matchup, coughing the ball up twice near the red zone.
“We’ve just got to finish drives and take some more shots,” Duke wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd said. “We’re so much better now than we were at this point last year.”
The Wildcats might be able to say the same about their offense—Thorson has another year of development under his belt after a breakout sophomore season, as does running back Justin Jackson, statistically the most elusive runner in the country last year.
As they did all of last season, the Blue Devils struggled to avoid big plays against the Wildcats, yielding touchdown passes of 58, 44, and 26 yards. Slowing big plays from Jackson and Northwestern’s offense—which includes the mobile Thorson—will be crucial for Duke to get over the hump.
“We have to tackle. Wrap up, gang tackle,” cornerback Byron Fields said about the team’s plan to slow Jackson. “Everyone’s got to join the party, all 11 guys. Tackle him, make sure he’s down. Because if you give him a seam, he’ll cause some damage.”
After a slow start to the season that included scoring seven points in a loss to FCS Illinois State, Northwestern’s offense improved in 2016, helping it nearly knock off eventual College Football Playoff semifinalist Ohio State and topple No. 23 Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Although the Wildcats have been potent on offense at times, they certainly weren’t consistent last year. They scored 29 or more points five times, but only scored 12 against Minnesota and seven against then-No. 8 Wisconsin.
But what they lack in consistency, they make up for in reliability. Northwestern was in the top 14 nationally in turnover margin, and Thorson threw just nine interceptions.
“The challenge they bring is making you beat them,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re not going to beat themselves. They’re a great team and they’re a great test for us.”