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Film room: Duke football needs to capitalize against Northwestern defense to go 2-0

Riley Leonard threw for 328 yards against Temple.
Riley Leonard threw for 328 yards against Temple.

Fresh off a convincing home win against Temple, Duke next travels to Northwestern for head coach Mike Elko’s first away game. As Saturday’s contest edges near, the Blue Zone takes a look at the Wildcats:

Duke opened the season and began head coach Mike Elko’s tenure with a 30-0 shutout against Temple. From the first minute to the last, Elko’s Blue Devils dominated the Owls both on offense and defense, giving fans an exciting season-opening performance. With a trip to Evanston, Ill., slated for Saturday, the question is whether the Blue Devils can build on their inspiring start against a Northwestern team that eked out a thriller in Ireland.

In their season-opener against Nebraska, the Wildcats came back and beat the Cornhuskers 31-28 in thrilling fashion after Northwestern linebacker Xavier Mueller made the game-sealing interception. Despite their comeback victory, the Wildcats showed some weaknesses.

Outside of the clutch defensive stops, Northwestern struggled to contain Nebraska’s offense for much of the game. The Cornhuskers’ Casey Thompson threw for 355 yards and a touchdown, catching the Wildcat secondary flat-footed on a number of occasions. One of his more impressive plays, however, was this scrambling effort in the third quarter, where despite pressure from Northwestern’s pass rushers, he still got the pass off for immense yardage.

The Wildcats’ defense also struggled to force three-and-outs as Nebraska converted over half of its third downs. This is due in part to Northwestern’s secondary, which allowed easy catches for receiver Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda—in the above clip—who had 120 receiving yards and one touchdown.

Northwestern’s run defense also struggled to slow down Nebraska’s Anthony Grant, who rushed for 101 yards and scored two touchdowns. Throughout the game, Grant was able to out-muscle the Northwestern defensive line to gain extra yards. In this clip, the Cornhusker offensive line easily creates space for Grant to score a 46-yard touchdown. When facing a strong offensive line like Nebraska’s, Northwestern can leave itself susceptible to big runs.

However, Northwestern’s offense is capable of making big runs of its own. At the quarterback position, Ryan Hilinski showed great skill against the Cornhuskers, throwing for 314 yards and two touchdowns. The star of the offense, however, was running-back Evan Hull, who rushed for 114 yards and scored the game-winner. In the below clip, Hull takes advantage of some good blocking by the Wildcat offensive line to charge within a few yards of the endzone.

Though Northwestern struggled defensively when faced with Nebraska’s mobile quarterback, what was equally evident was the Wildcats’ ability to take advantage of shaky secondaries themselves. Hull is a talented rusher and Hilinski is a deadeye passer, and against Duke, Northwestern will hope to take advantage of both.

The Wildcats’ defensive weaknesses could be the Blue Devils’ key to victory Saturday. Duke quarterback Riley Leonard looked solid in the season opener, passing for 328 yards and dishing out two touchdowns. His poise and ability to extend plays could give the Wildcat defense a tough time and allow the Blue Devils to dominate the air like they did against Temple. Northwestern’s weak run defense can also allow Duke running backs Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters, who rushed for just 43 yards and 32 yards against Temple, respectively, to make an impact. On the other hand, the Wildcats have two offensive weapons in Hilinski and Hull that a new-look Blue Devil defense may struggle to contain.

This Saturday will be the tale of two teams looking to rebound after disappointing 2021-22 seasons. Both will come out swinging early, ready to make a statement. For Duke, the key will be to dominate the passing game and exploit the Wildcats’ defense while also pressuring Hilinski and stopping Hull. For Northwestern, using the connection the two stars displayed against Nebraska is key, as is continuing the improved defensive momentum it displayed at the end of the game.


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