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Duke football heads to Northwestern with a confident Daniel Jones on the rise

The last time ventured Duke ventured to the Windy City, the results were ugly. 

The Blue Devils' 13 points matched their lowest offensive output of the 2016 season, and a pair of poorly-timed turnovers were part of why Duke only found paydirt once that night. Until last's year win against Northwestern in Durham, the Wildcats had taken down the Blue Devils in eight of the teams' last nine matchups, dating back to 1999.

As center Zach Harmon put it best, "Northwestern's had our number in years past."

Duke will now try to put together consecutive victories against the Wildcats as the Blue Devils travel to Evanston, Ill. for their first road contest of the season, a noon kickoff at Ryan Field. Quarterback Daniel Jones turned in a steady performance in Duke's season opener against Army, but Northwestern—which just missed out on a spot in this week AP poll—and its big, aggressive defensive front is a whole different type of challenge.

"When a guy gets physically stronger and better, they immediately become a more confident football player.... I think that's paying dividends for Daniel," head coach David Cutcliffe said of his signal-caller. "He feels good, he feels strong, and I believe he's faster than he was."

Like the rest of his team, Jones turned in one of the worst performances of his career during that 2016 trip to Chicago. 

The then-redshirt freshman, playing in his first collegiate road game, managed 279 passing yards yet needed 48 attempts to do so. His 100.9 passer rating ranks among the bottom third of his 26 games as a Blue Devil, and Jones didn't throw for a touchdown in that contest—something he's done only seven times in his career.

Flashback to almost a year ago, though, and Jones turned in one of the cleanest games of his career against the very same Wildcats (1-0). That type of play, combined with a newfound confidence the now-redshirt junior showed in last week's season opener, has many within the Duke program confident that Jones' best is still yet to come.

"I was really pleased to see the accuracy with the deep balls," Harmon said. "In camp, he was just lighting it up and that was awesome to see.... If we keep [Daniel] off the ground this week, I can only assume he's going to keep getting better and better."

Jones and the Blue Devils (1-0) have a chance to exploit Northwestern with their passing game thanks to depth at both wide receiver and tight end. 

Despite potential all-Big Ten cornerback Montre Hartage leading the Wildcat secondary, Purdue gashed Northwestern through the air. The Boilermakers logged six different players with multiple receptions and double-digit receiving yards, led by the speedy Rondale Moore, who caught up to a long touchdown right up the seam.

Duke, which attempted just 17 passes last week, will try to get more receivers involved this time around, after its number of plays were limited by the Black Knights' significant time of possession advantage in the opener.

"Some of our players probably thought they would’ve played more than what they did," Cutcliffe said of the Army game. "A year ago, we had around 90 snaps against Northwestern and we’d like to be able to mimic that again Saturday. The thing our players have to realize, and I tell them this all the time, is you don’t just play a lot of people just to play them. You play people that have earned the opportunity to play and play well."

If the Blue Devils are going to help out their quarterback, they'll need a bit more of explosiveness from top wideout T.J. Rahming. Although the senior totaled 44 yards on five catches, he got 35 of them on just one play at the end of the first quarter.

Perhaps another big performance could be in the cards for redshirt junior Aaron Young, who blew past his career-high yardage total last week en route to 114 receiving yards and a touchdown. Maybe the best play, however, was a 61-yard bomb from Jones that saw Young tackled a yard shy of the end zone.

Either way, Young's presence only adds to an experienced group of pass-catchers that give Jones the ammo to raise his game yet again.

"Aaron's a great player and the world got a glimpse of that Friday," fellow wide receiver Chris Taylor said. "Our biggest challenge to him has been to be consistent and make those plays all the time."

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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