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X Factor: Duke football vs. Northwestern

<p>Duke's offensive line struggled to protect Daniel Jones last week against Wake Forest and will be a key factor in Saturday's game.</p>

Duke's offensive line struggled to protect Daniel Jones last week against Wake Forest and will be a key factor in Saturday's game.

Duke is looking to bounce back into the win column as it faces Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., Saturday at 8 p.m. The Blue Devils are hoping to improve to 2-1 ahead of a tough matchup with Notre Dame next week. A win against the Wildcats would be crucial for Duke's bowl hopes, considering the rest of the Blue Devils' tough schedule. Every week throughout the football season, we’ll break down a player on each team who could be the difference-maker in the upcoming contest.

Duke: offensive line

One reason why the Blue Devil offense struggled mightily against Wake Forest was because it could not produce an effective ground game. Quarterback Daniel Jones threw for 332 yards, but he, along with running backs Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson, only combined for 37 yards on 30 rushing attempts. Additionally, Duke's offensive line gave up five sacks against the Demon Deacons, who harassed Jones all day and hampered his ability to get off accurate throws.

The offensive-line play against the Wildcats Saturday night will be crucial for the Blue Devils in order to control the game and protect their young quarterback. Two weeks ago against N.C Central, Duke took control of the game early thanks to a potent rushing attack that produced 308 yards on the ground. Duncan and Wilson have proven to be an explosive one-two punch in the past, so if the offensive line can open up some holes against the Wildcats, the Blue Devils should be able to establish the run early. But that won’t be the only job in the trenches for Duke, which will also have to do a better job protecting Jones. The Northwestern defense has notched four sacks this season, and whether that number increases could be a deciding factor in tonight’s matchup.

Northwestern: quarterback Clayton Thorson

A major key to victory last week for Wake Forest was quarterback Kendall Hinton’s ability to spread the field and make plays on the ground and through the air—especially in the second half. Thorson has struggled for the Wildcats early in the season, completing only 50.8 percent of his passes for 387 yards and one touchdown in two games. He also has 51 rushing yards and cannot be ignored as a dual threat out of Northwestern’s read-option offense.

If the Wildcats want to break into the win column for the first time this season, they need Thorson to make plays, especially through the air. They cannot rely on the legs of Justin Jackson to create a one-dimensional offense, which has caused the team to struggle offensively through two games. Thorson struggled throughout last season, completing just more than 50 percent of his passes and throwing nine interceptions, but the redshirt sophomore can make a statement that he is improving with an impressive performance against a veteran Duke secondary Saturday night. If Thorson is making plays through the air and Jackson is gashing the Blue Devils on the ground, Northwestern could very well be on its way to its first victory this season.

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