Loss to Blue Devils could boost Wildcats
When it comes to Saturday's 7 p.m. game at Wallace Wade Stadium, both Northwestern and Duke are preaching from the same book.
The Blue Devils and Wildcats are both maintaining that last season's contest-a 20-14 Duke win in Evanston, Ill., the team's only victory of the year-means little in respect to this year's game and that the current squads are starkly different from the 2007 teams.
"Last year's over-nothing we can do about it now," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Tuesday on the Big Ten teleconference. "It's out of our control. We learned a lot from it, and you move on."
It was a game in which the Wildcats statistically dominated Duke-even without star running back Tyrell Sutton, who finished with 185 all-purpose yards in the team's opening game last Saturday against Syracuse, a 30-10 Wildcat win.
In the 2007 matchup, Northwestern battered the Blue Devil defense, accumulating more than 500 yards of total offense and putting together six drives of more than 55 yards each. Still, the team only managed to score twice, turned the ball over twice and could not score in the final minute of the game with four plays inside the 10-yard line, allowing Duke to escape with the win.
The unexpected loss started a three-game losing streak for the Wildcats, who closed the season 6-6, and effectively kept them out of the postseason.
Which is exactly why Duke head coach David Cutcliffe expects Northwestern's players to have the loss in the back of their minds.
"Northwestern is pretty pumped up trying to steal one back that they probably felt like kept them from playing in a bowl game," Cutcliffe said Tuesday. "It's going to be a really heated [game]. I love these [games]-two very similar universities under similar circumstances."
Cutcliffe is certainly right to allude to the resemblances between the two programs. Both Northwestern and Duke are premier academic schools intent on competing and winning in tough BCS conferences against schools with lower academic standards.
And to do so, both teams have made significant changes to their coaching staffs. Duke brought in Cutcliffe in December, and he revamped most of the staff. In Evanston, the Wildcats hired new offensive and defensive coordinators-Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz, respectively.
"Northwestern is a really good football team," Cutcliffe said. "They are a really well-coached football team. They are extremely well conditioned.... Their offense really works fast. They try to take you to the wall."
As Cutcliffe can likely affirm, changing the culture and direction of a program is no easy task. Nevertheless, it is one which both the Wildcats and Blue Devils have strived for over the last year.
Hankwitz said training and teaching his defensive recruits has been a long and thorough process. Northwestern, like Duke, has trouble attracting the highest-rated high school talent and often has to start with the basics in practice-molding its raw, athletic crop into polished, disciplined football players.
"We were a young team last year, so we really felt like we had to develop great fundamentals," Hankwitz said. "We have to teach them how to play football and be effective.... Then we just felt like we needed to evaluate our talent and find what we can do best."
The off-season process and progress of the Blue Devils and the Wildcats have been remarkably similar-and so are their goals.
Both teams are trying to prove once and for all that they can win at the highest level. As far as Duke and Northwestern are concerned, this weekend's game matters most in determining the future of their respective football programs. The past has nothing to with it.
"We're a new team, and we're taking the next step," Hankwitz said.
Sounds like something Northwestern's opponent has been preaching of late.