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5 things to know before Duke football's clash against Northwestern

Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg will face his biggest test of his career against Northwestern.
Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg will face his biggest test of his career against Northwestern.

Another game down and the Blue Devils made another statement. 

This time, though, they made a positive one. 

Coming off an embarrassing loss against Charlotte, head coach David Cutcliffe brought his team together to produce a thrashing of North Carolina A&T Friday night under the lights. And though it wasn’t a season-defining win, it was a step in the right direction.

The question is, though, whether Duke can keep it up against a much more skilled Big Ten opponent in Northwestern this Saturday at 4 p.m. Here are five things to watch for as the Blue Devils play their second home game at Wallace Wade Stadium. 

Keeping that ball secure

So far, Duke’s offense has been quite consistent in handling the ball. Against Charlotte, the Blue Devils had some first-game jitters which resulted in three fumbles, with quarterback Gunnar Holmberg contributing one of them at the goal line in the third quarter. 

However, Duke improved its ball security for its game against North Carolina A&T, and recorded no fumbles. It’s also important to note that so far this season, Holmberg has not thrown an interception. Against a much more skilled defensive lineup in Northwestern, the Blue Devils need to keep that ball security as pristine as they did against the Aggies to give themselves a fighting chance. 

“I think a lot of that leads back to preparation,” Holmberg said of what his coaches have been teaching about ball security during summer practice. “[Cutcliffe] and [Baxter deputy head coach Zac Roper] have talked about, in the offseason, as a way to lead the ball security, putting the ball in places where only your receivers can get it.”

Leveling up for a Power Five opponent

It’s no secret that Northwestern is going to be a tougher matchup for Duke than North Carolina A&T was. The Wildcats play in a Power Five conference, so points will be harder to come by for Duke and it will be harder to recover from errors. 

The Blue Devils will need to step it up a notch to make sure that they are ready for this new level of competition, and both the coaching staff and players acknowledged this in their after-practice interviews this week. 

“Now, the key is building on [last week's win], and we're playing a Power Five team, a Power Five program, that's a great program, not just a good team,” Cutcliffe said in his Monday press conference. 

For Cutcliffe, this process of improvement starts with tightening up the defense by getting through an opponents’ blocking game. 

“Defeating blocks is where that all starts,” Cutcliffe said. "Not just making plays. We've got to defeat more blocks at the point of attack before you can make plays.” 

Taking a defensive play to completion is another important key for Cutcliffe, who acknowledged that his team is youthful in that area. 

Gunnar’s upward trajectory

A somewhat intangible aspect of play that is vital for Duke to secure a win against Northwestern is Holmberg’s belief in himself. This starts with his increasing confidence in his role, and last week’s blowout should certainly help with that. Holmberg clearly wasn’t as comfortable in his role as the Blue Devils' leader under center against Charlotte, but in the matchup against the Aggies, Holmberg appeared much more secure in his position.

“He was much more comfortable, confident if you will. You could sense it in pregame. I could sense it in the locker room before the game in conversation,” Cutcliffe said. 

In a game where there is going to be little room for error, the team will be ever-reliant on Holmberg to provide leadership, and his perception of himself as “that guy” just might make all the difference.

Can the run game keep rolling?

Mataeo Durant, throughout the past two games, has been phenomenal, anchoring the running game for the Blue Devils and earning ACC Player of the Week honors after Week One. With a hat trick in rushing touchdowns in each of Duke’s two contests, his performance is a large reason why the Blue Devils came close to winning against Charlotte and defeated North Carolina A&T. 

But while he ran for 255 yards against the 49ers, he was only able to able to run for 41 yards against the Aggies on about half as many carries. The Blue Devils relied primarily on the air to move the ball up the field against North Carolina A&T, with veterans Jake Bobo and Jalon Calhoun recording over 90 receiving yards each. While this strategy worked last Friday, Duke will need to rely on a jumpstart from Durant if the pass game fails against Northwestern. 

The Blue Devil faithful

The impact of the students at Wallace Wade Stadium last Friday night cannot be overstated. After a slow start against the Aggies, it was the student section that provided some of the energy that propelled the Blue Devils to score early in the second quarter and never look back.

This type of impact doesn’t show up on a stat sheet or a box score but is indeed essential. The program recognized this, acknowledging the students’ impact by posting on social media and encouraging them to pack Wallace Wade Stadium once again this Saturday. 

In what’s bound to be a neck-to-neck matchup, Duke is going to need the support of its faithful fans to help pull it through.

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