From a crushing opening defeat to a promising home victory, two parallel programs are set to intersect. Once the dust settles, one will be bound for a negative trajectory while the other will be soaring in a propitious direction.
The Blue Devils are entering their second home game in a row at Wallace Wade Stadium after dominating their previous one against North Carolina A&T 45-17. This Saturday they size up against Northwestern at 4 p.m., a more daunting Power Five opponent coming off a Big Ten Championship game appearance last season. The last time these two met came in 2018 when now-New York Giants starting quarterback Daniel Jones led the Blue Devils to a 21-7 victory against a Wildcat team that would go on to win the Big Ten West. Duke now aims to recapture that winning culture while Northwestern intends to pick up where it left off following a remarkable 2020 season.
So, how good were the Wildcats last year? They were historically good for their program: 7-2 record, undefeated at home and Big Ten West champions. Their spectacular season was capped off by a 35-19 Citrus Bowl victory against Auburn, and a No. 10 finish in the AP Poll, their highest since 1995.
However, the transition to this season has not been as favorable. The powerhouse team of last year heavily relied on its senior class, graduates and talent lost to the NFL, including their AP All-Big Ten Defensive First Team linebacker Paddy Fisher; consensus third team All-Big Ten quarterback Peyton Ramsey; consensus second team All-Big Ten linebacker Blake Gallagher; and consensus first team All-Big Ten defensive back Greg Newsome II.
They only return four starters on each side of the ball. Additionally, they lost their legendary defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who led their No. 1-ranked team defense in the Power Five. This is much of why, even after finishing 10th, the Wildcats still found themselves on the outside of the preseason top 25. They didn’t do themselves any favors opening with a home loss to Michigan State, a team that has been their kryptonite the last few years. So, even after a bounce back 24-6 win against Indiana State last week, Northwestern, like Duke, still has a long way to go.
Although they did lose a ton of talent, the Wildcats are still a force to be reckoned with. One of the biggest factors that led to that amazing 2020 season was new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. Northwestern has built a reputation of being defensive-minded, but its offense used to be egregious under Mick McCall who had them close to the bottom of the entire FBS offensively in 2019. The Wildcats have now become much more respectable after transitioning to Bajakian’s system and look to be even better after a full offseason to implement his schemes. Quarterback Hunter Johnson has filled the void left by Ramsey and looked promising against Michigan State in the opening weekend, but regressed against Indiana State a week ago.
Northwestern is also still loaded with star talent, one of those players being superstar sophomore safety Brandon Joseph, who finished 2020 on the AP All-Big Ten First Team and came into 2021 voted as an AP First Team Preseason All-American. He’s a force in the secondary and a concern for any quarterback he matches up against, as last season he tallied an exceptional total of six interceptions.
There is also dominant offensive lineman Peter Skoronski, who is on the Outland Trophy Watch List, and linebacker Chris Bergin who is on the Butkus Award Watch List.
The Wildcats biggest loss this offseason was seeing promising running back Cam Porter go down with a season-ending injury, and their offense has struggled a bit to start the season as a result. The offense has only garnered a total of 675 yards to Duke’s 1,014, which boasts a superstar of its own in senior running back Mataeo Durant.
Despite all this, the Wildcats still enter the Saturday evening duel as favorites, and this matchup between Duke and Northwestern is set to be a battle of an imposing Blue Devil offense versus a talented Wildcat defense.
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