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Third and goal: Defensive urgency, offensive efficiency are key in Duke's road opener against Northwestern

Quarterback Riley Leonard threw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Temple.
Quarterback Riley Leonard threw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Temple.

A new era of Duke football began last week as the Blue Devils shut out Temple 30-0. They will look to carry that momentum into Saturday’s Power 5 matchup against Northwestern. The Blue Zone has three keys to the game as Duke tries to maintain its perfect record:

Win the momentum battle early

A shutout. An inspired defense. A composed quarterback. Zero turnovers. The list of reasons to be optimistic about Duke football has grown after the victory against Temple. However, the Blue Devils are not the only optimistic team in Saturday’s contest. During Week 0, the Northwestern notched a statement 31-28 victory over Nebraska. The Wildcats scored in all four quarters, collecting 528 yards of offense, 6.2 yards per play, 34 minutes of possession and 25 first downs. Quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns and running back Evan Hull recorded 174 total yards. Both sides have a chip on their shoulders, and the one that prevails early will likely set the tone for the rest of the game. For Duke, this could mean another seven-point, two-minute opening drive or a key defensive turnover. In last year’s matchup, which ended in a Blue Devil victory, Duke outscored Northwestern 21-0 in the first quarter, a margin the Wildcats couldn’t overcome. A similar start is crucial for the Blue Devils to remain undefeated come Sunday. 

Take calculated risks

Northwestern took care of business against Nebraska, but not without giving up 6.4 yards per play. Duke quarterback Riley Leonard, who looked seasoned in Week One, must establish consistency early to incorporate the deep ball into the game plan. The Wildcats defense is still trying to find their form after dropping from third in the nation in 2020 in defensive efficiency all the way to 103rd in 2021. Finding and exposing the defensive holes will be key in generating momentum and scoring touchdowns; creating space and maximizing yards after catch will be crucial, which will come down to receivers Jalon Calhoun and Sahmir Hagans. It is important, however, for the Blue Devil offense to stay disciplined and play intelligently as the Wildcat defense did manage to force three turnovers against Nebraska. Getting into an early offensive groove would certainly irritate the Northwestern defense and open up the deep ball, setting the tone for Duke to control the speed of the game. 

Responding to adversity

Given the commanding nature of Duke’s rout of Temple, coach Elko and the new Blue Devil squad have yet to face adversity. It is highly unlikely that Saturday’s matchup proceeds in a similar manner. The Blue Devils are 10-point underdogs and will likely need to grind out a win in Evanston, Ill. The question remains: how will this Duke team respond to setbacks and errors? To be victorious, the Blue Devils must demonstrate grit and determination. How will Riley Leonard bounce back if he throws an interception? How will the defense recover after giving up its first points of the season? The program needs to demonstrate its ability to win close games. 

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