When Duke and Northwestern met last year, signs of a disappointing season for the Blue Devils were already starting to accumulate after a loss to Wake Forest. Those inconsistencies—turnovers, poor kicking, a stagnant offense—materialized further in a second straight setback for Duke. 

Now, on the contrary, the Blue Devils welcome the Wildcats a week removed from one of the team’s biggest offensive efforts in history. 

But at the same time, an experienced Northwestern team returning eight offensive starters looks poised to challenge Duke in what is shaping up to be a competitive game. The Wildcats enter Wallace Wade Stadium for Saturday’s clash at noon fresh off a 31-20 win over Nevada to start the season. Similarly, the Blue Devils will look to expand upon last week’s 60-7 thrashing of N.C. Central to get to two wins in as many weeks.

"I’m looking at the tape, and I’m seeing déjâ vu, but I’m also seeing a better [Northwestern] team," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Both [running back Justin] Jackson and [quarterback Clayton] Thorson are as good a combination that you’ll see in college football."

One of the main stories after last season’s 24-13 defeat was the number of explosive plays given up by the Blue Devil defensive backfield. Thorson, then a redshirt sophomore, picked apart an experienced Duke secondary en route to 320 yards and three touchdowns through the air. All three of those touchdowns came on passes of 25 yards or more, including a 58-yard strike to seal the game late in the fourth quarter. 

After losing four members of the secondary to graduation in DeVon Edwards, Deondre Singleton, Breon Borders and Corbin McCarthy, a much younger group will face one of their toughest tests of the season this Saturday in terms of keeping Thorson in check and containing Jackson, one of college football’s most elusive running backs.

“Giving up explosive plays on defense—we definitely have to limit those,” redshirt senior cornerback Bryon Fields Jr. said. “Last year with the passing game, we gave up some plays over the middle that we shouldn’t have given up.”

Both Fields and senior safety Alonzo Saxton II emphasized the importance of corralling Jackson, a dynamic player who has amassed more than 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in his career. Duke linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys will have their hands full with the Carol Stream, Ill., native, and Saxton and Fields both emphasized the importance of having all 11 defenders involved in tackling him. 

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones played fairly well last season against a stout Northwestern secondary in his first career start away from home. Jones fell just short of 300 yards passing, but a costly interception near the red zone and an ineffective run game stunted Duke’s opportunities. Jones and a youthful receiving core that features just one senior, however, may face their toughest secondary of the season Saturday. The Wildcats' defensive backs are led by NFL prospect Godwin Igwebuike and two upperclassmen with plenty of experience from last season. 

“We’re always trying to find matchups,” Cutcliffe said on how to break down the secondary. “That’s what offense is in a lot of ways—it’s not the scheme, it’s the personnel. It’s difficult against them because they’re so balanced in what they do.”

After failing to find success against the Wildcats on the ground last season, the Blue Devils feature a tandem of senior Shaun Wilson and redshirt freshman Brittain Brown, who averaged 12.0 yards per rush against N.C. Central.

Wilson and Brown’s play will be bolstered by a revamped offensive line that has already received praise from Cutcliffe for their performance against the Eagles. With three redshirt seniors in starting positions, the group’s experience could help them win battles in the trenches during key moments.

“They were efficient and they’ve been better in camp to this point than they were at any time all of last year,” Cutcliffe said. They’ve worked very hard, they’ve taken a big challenge in the weight room and are stronger.”

After losing five games last season by 11 points or fewer, making plays in crucial moments will be a central theme for the Blue Devils this season, especially with a more experienced quarterback. 

The stakes for Saturday are high. Duke has just one more nonconference game after Northwestern to prepare for its conference opener in Chapel Hill against a North Carolina team hungry for revenge after the Blue Devils’ thrilling 28-27 upset last season. 

Duke has dropped the first two contests in its four-game series with the Wildcats by two possessions, but is hoping for a different result this time. 

“If we manage the game and try to play to the highest level of ability we’ve got, then we’ll be competitive in this game,” Cutcliffe said. “You can’t have wasted plays against a team like them—that’s the challenge.”