During Duke’s six-game skid, Daniel Jones hardly even looked like a shell of his former self. 

At the tail end of that stretch, the redshirt sophomore threw for 82 yards on 24 attempts against Virginia Tech and engineered a loss to Army. Not exactly what head coach David Cutcliffe was looking for. 

But with two strong performances to close the season, Jones helped the Blue Devils secure bowl eligibility. As Jones has gone, Duke has gone this season, and that was never more evident than in its wins against Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, its fifth and sixth victories of the season. 

During those two games, Jones posted an adjusted QBR of 74.8—more than double his average of 36.9 during the skid. 

“We found a way to make explosive plays,” Jones said. “I don’t think you can attribute that to just one thing.”

But heading into the Quick Lane Bowl against Northern Illinois Dec. 26, Blue Devil fans can only wonder: is Jones’ revival sustainable against the Huskies’ ominous pass rush? 

Although Duke yielded just one sack in its final two games, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest ranked No. 111 and 57 in the nation in sacks, respectively, but Northern Illinois is one of the best pass rushing teams in the nation. That’s not an encouraging sign for a Blue Devil team that has been far below average in pass-down sack rate, according to Football Outsiders. 

Spearheaded by converted running back and now-defensive end Sutton Smith's 14 sacks, Northern Illinois got to the quarterback more than all but one team in the country. 

The Blue Devils' pass protection has certainly tightened up as the season has gone on—Jones was sacked 15 times in September before being dropped just 11 times in October and November combined. But they have struggled mightily against quick fronts like Florida State and Miami—and Smith brings a similar sort of physicality. 

Double and even triple-teams don’t seem to do much to slow Smith. As seen in the clip below, he sheds the guard, tackle and running back all in the same play before dropping the quarterback hard. 

Recruited as a running back and standing at a modest 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, the defensive end makes up for his lack of size with blazing speed—especially right off the block. 

And with his agility and quickness in opposing backfields, it’s no surprise that he racked up 29 tackles for loss—just 10 fewer than East Carolina’s entire team had this season. Once again in the clip below, he shook a pure double team at the line of scrimmage and smothered the opposing running back. 

Certainly, the level of competition Northern Illinois faced this season paled in comparison to what Duke saw in the ACC, but Smith is a real talent. Against Nebraska, a Power-5 team, he used his speed on the edge to blow by the guard and bring down Tanner Lee. On most of his sacks, opposing linemen don’t even touch Smith, like on this play. 

Smith’s two-sack, four-tackle for loss outing against the Cornhuskers was a huge reason why Northern Illinois was able to come away with a surprise September victory. In the Huskies’ four losses this season, Smith has totaled three sacks—Northern Illinois’ fate tends to hinge on his ability to get to the quarterback.  

The Blue Devils certainly have the size on the edge to limit Smith with 6-foot-3 guards Julian Santos and Zach Harmon, who both have almost 100 pounds on Smith. 

But whether they will be able to stay in front of the speedy Smith and keep him out of the backfield could determine the game. If the Blue Devils can keep Jones safe and give him time to work from the pocket like they did in their last two games, they could come away with their second bowl victory since 2015. 

But if Smith is partying in the backfield, it could bring back a lot of memories from Duke’s midseason implosion.