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Third and goal: Defensive line, momentum are crucial for a Duke victory against Northwestern

<p>Duke's defense has their work cut out for them controlling the Wildcats' formidable offense.</p>

Duke's defense has their work cut out for them controlling the Wildcats' formidable offense.

After an electric 45-17 home-opening win against North Carolina A&T last week, Duke football will look to keep that energy going when they face Northwestern on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. In anticipation, the Blue Zone brings three aspects that will be critical to the Blue Devils come Saturday:

A tale of two backs

Running back Mataeo Durant has been Duke’s breakout star so far this season. The spark that keeps the Blue Devils alive already has six touchdowns in just two games. What will he face this Saturday, though: the lockdown defense that held Indiana State to 31 rushing yards, or the weak backfield that Michigan State ran straight through? Depending on which version of the Wildcats run defense shows up on Saturday, Durant could have his work cut out for him. Effective runs from the get-go will be crucial to open the field for quarterback Gunnar Holmberg.

Northwestern has its own dominant running back in Evan Hull. He logged 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last week’s matchup against Indiana State. While Duke’s defense was vastly improved against North Carolina A&T compared to its performance against Charlotte, its still gave up 208 rushing yards. The defense has got to be able to get off the field quicker, and that all starts with stopping the run. If Hull gets hot, it could mean disaster for the Blue Devils.

All on the (defensive) line

The Blue Devils defense has been dreadful at putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They have only one sack on the season courtesy of R.J. Oben in the opener against Charlotte. Wildcats quarterback Hunter Johnson was extremely effective in Northwestern’s losing battle against Michigan State, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns, and has the potential to tear apart Duke’s secondary, so the defensive line must keep consistent pressure on the pocket and make Johnson uncomfortable. If Johnson has less time to throw, the receivers have less time to get open. Defensive success this week has to start at the line, and it has to start early. The Blue Devils’ defensive line has yet to find its spark this season, so there is ample room for someone to step up and take charge.

Maintaining momentum

In last week’s rout of North Carolina A&T, the Blue Devils took from their bag of tricks and pulled off a successful onside quick at the start of the second quarter. It was sandwiched between two touchdown drives and set Duke ahead for good. The momentum was in the Blue Devil’s favor for the remainder of the game, in sharp contrast to a Charlotte game that was back and forth all night.

Duke has quickly established their fast paced, hurry-up offensive style. Efficient runs and long completions have kept drives short, sweet and effective. Nothing gets a crowd going more than big plays and touchdowns, which were both plentiful against North Carolina A&T. Even when the game was close, the play calling and execution kept the momentum in the Blue Devil’s favor. Momentum will be key this week. Northwestern’s offense is fully capable of scoring and scoring a lot, so Duke’s offense will need to minimize missed opportunities. 

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