Last year, Duke and Northwestern met in Durham as 2-0 teams hoping to continue building momentum before entering conference play.
This time around, the teams are a combined 1-3 and just hoping to get their seasons back on track when they meet Saturday night.
Duke’s matchup with Northwestern at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., will be the second of a four-year series between the schools and comes with both teams reeling from major upsets. The Blue Devils suffered a 24-14 setback against Wake Forest, and FCS foe Illinois State shocked the Wildcats—who were ranked as high as No. 12 last season—by a score of 9-7. Northwestern also fell to Western Michigan 22-21 in its season opener.
Although Duke enters its first road matchup of the 2016 campaign riding a 13-3 mark in its last 16 true road games and Northwestern has struggled to score this season, Wildcat head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team will still test the Blue Devils after winning last year’s contest 19-10.
“[Northwestern is] a physical team, so we know we’re going to have to battle in the trenches a lot,” redshirt senior safety DeVon Edwards said. “They have some big guys and they ran the ball pretty well against us, better than they threw it against us [last year], so we expect them to attack us with that. We’ve got to do a better job than we did last year.”
In his 11-year tenure, Fitzgerald has transformed the Wildcat defense into one of the most consistent in the nation.
Northwestern ranked 104th in the country at 32.5 points allowed per game in 2005 before Fitzgerald became head coach the following season. In 2015, it finished seventh-best among FBS teams at 16.4 points allowed per game, with the Wildcat defense sparking the team’s 10-2 regular season.
“When I think of Northwestern, I think of Pat Fitzgerald,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I actually coached against him when he was a player and he was a Hall-of-Fame player.... But he is really a good football coach. They will be as well-coached of a team as we will play.”
After Western Michigan gashed Fitzgerald’s unit for nearly 200 yards on the ground in the season opener, the Wildcats responded against Illinois State. Northwestern limited the Redbirds to just 85 rushing yards on 30 carries, though Illinois State still found a way to pull the upset.
“The [defensive] line was not good enough [in the first game,]” Fitzgerald said at a press conference Monday. “We made some changes, and we saw a return on those changes.”
Facing a leaky Duke offensive line that struggled to contain Wake Forest, the Wildcats will look to control their second straight game against the Blue Devils.
Redshirt senior defensive lineman C.J. Robbins anchors the Northwestern defensive front and has one of the team’s four sacks, and senior linebacker Jaylen Prater and junior safety Godwin Igwebuike lead the defense with a combined 41 tackles early this season.
The Wildcat defenders are hoping Northwestern’s offense can find its rhythm against Duke, with quarterback Clayton Thorson struggling since replacing Denver Broncos starting quarterback Trevor Siemian following the 2014 season.
The redshirt sophomore is averaging 193.5 yards passing per game and his meager 50.8 completion percentage and one touchdown through two games against subpar competition have stagnated the Wildcat offense. Northwestern has recorded only 31 first downs—compared to its opponents’ 52—and scored 28 points through its first two games.
“We’ve got to be more consistent, especially down the stretch,” Thorson said during a Monday media session. “There were a few key plays where I didn’t play as well as I should have.”
The strength of the Wildcat offense is its ground attack led by running back Justin Jackson. The 5-foot-11 junior was a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2015 and became the fifth player in school history with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons after racking up 1,418 yards.
The Carol Stream, Ill., native has three of Northwestern’s four touchdowns this season and is the team’s leading rusher again with 83.0 yards per game. He is also the Wildcats’ second-leading receiver behind senior wideout Austin Carr, even though Jackson missed most of the game against Illinois State with an injury.
And after slicing the Blue Devils for 120 yards last September, Jackson will likely need another big game when he returns to action Saturday if Northwestern is to earn its first victory of the season.
“This week we have an opportunity to beat Duke and that’s what we’re going to focus on,” Jackson said. “It’s simple.”