Behind Enemy Lines: Duke football vs Northwestern

Before every football game this year, The Blue Zone will sit down with a football writer from the opposing school’s student newspaper to get the scoop on their team and season.

This week, The Chronicle’s Nick Martin spoke to the The Daily Northwestern’s Gameday editor Bobby Pillote about this Saturday’s clash between No. 23 Northwestern and the Blue Devils.

The Chronicle: There was a lot of negative talk surrounding the team prior to the season’s start and then the Wildcats went out and upset then-No. 21 Stanford in a commanding 16-6 season-opening win. I know teams love to toss the usual, “We just take it one game at a time,” shtick out after every big win, but was that season opener more of a pleasant surprise or expected affirmation for Northwestern?

The Daily Northwestern: Absolutely a pleasant surprise. There was a lot of uncertainty about how redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson would perform in his first start, but he ended up managing the game well and, most importantly, avoided turning the ball over. The defense also played much better than expected. I don’t think anyone thought a good-but-not-great (at least on paper) Wildcats stop unit would keep Kevin Hogan and the usually very reliable Stanford offense out of the endzone.

TC: Running back Justin Jackson, who is coming off a 1,000-yard 2014 campaign, was instrumental in both of Northwestern’s victories—he’s rushed for 212 yards and a score thus far. Duke’s defense, albeit against two fairly weak opponents, has allowed just 79 rushing yards on 50 attempts. Under the ever-so-fun immovable object and unstoppable force category, what’s going to give in this week’s matchup—Jackson and the Wildcat rushing game or the Blue Devil front seven?

TDN: I’m going to have to side with Northwestern, because it’s not just Jackson carrying the ball. He’s the feature back, but Thorson is also active in the running game and has surprisingly good speed, and Jackson has two very talented backups in junior Warren Long and sophomore Solomon Vault. Even speedy true freshman wide receiver Jelani Roberts has gotten involved on a few jet sweep plays this season. The Wildcats won’t be looking to throw too much with Thorson, and will instead probably try to wear out the Duke defense with a multitude of ball carriers.

TC: On the flip side, there was a little chatter coming from Duke running back Shaun Wilson following a comment from Northwestern defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo saying he expected the Wildcats to shut out the Blue Devils. Petty pregame non-feuds aside, how has Northwestern been gameplanning for the Duke offense, which will be led by dual-threat quarterback Thomas Sirk?

TDN: Northwestern doesn’t have any quality tape on Sirk because, according to coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Blue Devils have kept their offense pretty basic thus far. The Wildcats are leaning on the fact that they practice against a similar dual threat in Thorson and a bevy of talented pass rushers along the defensive line. Odenigbo is the best of them, with 2.5 sacks so far, and he and the rest of the defense will look to get to Sirk quickly before he can slip out of the pocket.

TC: When you look at this game, one being played between two seemingly even 2-0 teams looking to make a push to break in or stay in the polls and make an unexpected run at their division, what—or who—do you see as being the x-factor?

TDN: Special teams. Northwestern had some trouble with its kick coverage last season, and it’s easy to imagine a DeVon Edwards return being the difference in what I expect to be a low scoring game. On the flip side, Wildcats kicker Jack Mitchell has shown good leg this year and is 5-for-6 through two games, so Duke could be in trouble if the contest comes down to a field goal.

TC: What’s your final prediction for Saturday’s game?

TDN: Duke 17, Northwestern 10. The Wildcats’ defense holds, but the offense can’t keep pace after an untimely turnover or two by Thorson.

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