5 things to know before Duke football meets Northwestern on the road

Jalon Calhoun and the Blue Devils face a true test Saturday at Northwestern.
Jalon Calhoun and the Blue Devils face a true test Saturday at Northwestern.

Duke kicked off head coach Mike Elko's tenure Friday with a dominating shutout victory against Temple, but the squad will face what is presumably a much tougher test this week at Northwestern. Here are five things to look out for as the Blue Devils try to improve to 2-0 on the season. 

The kicking game

Redshirt junior kicker Charlie Ham both made and missed three field goals in Friday's home matchup, including a miss from 28 yards out. Still, Elko expressed faith in his kicker heading into Saturday's matchup.

“It’d be naive to say not a little bit concerned. Hopefully it was a one-night mistake… I’ve got a lot of confidence in Charlie,” said Elko.

While leaving nine points on the field was insignificant in Duke’s 30-0 drubbing of Temple, it could loom much larger Saturday when Duke will need all the points it can get to overcome the Wildcats. 

Second-half scoring 

Duke’s offense was a well-oiled machine in the first half against the Owls, as sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard led the Blue Devils to 24 points before halftime.  After the game, senior wide receiver Jalon Calhoun was complimentary of the Blue Devils' new starter under center. 

“He knew the game plan,” said Calhoun. “He came out confident and he just led the whole offense, he just brought that energy out to the whole offense and we came along with him.”

This energy, however, did not carry over to the second half. Duke did not score another touchdown and only mustered six additional points before the final whistle blew. Of course, the result of the contest was no longer in doubt at that point, but the Blue Devils' offensive momentum still lagged considerably in the game’s closing stretch. 

“Wish we’d have finished better,” said Elko. “Wish we’d have continued the level of execution we had in the first half through the second half.”

This week, Duke will be facing a Northwestern team which also started off its season strong offensively, putting up 31 points against Nebraska. The takeaway? Elko and the Blue Devils will need four quarters of aggressive football to bring home a win to Durham. 

Crowd support 

Against Temple, Duke students showed up in large numbers to support their team, including numerous freshmen donning their personalized jerseys. The players undoubtedly fed off of the raucous atmosphere, and Elko credited the student body's support ahead of his second game at the helm. 

“The atmosphere was really good, awesome turnout from our students. Still very appreciative of that,” said Elko. 

Not only will Duke be facing a stronger opponent Saturday, but it will be doing it in a foreign atmosphere for the first time this season. Expect far fewer fans donning blue and screaming for the Blue Devils. The team must tune out, rather than tune into, the crowd and keep its focus on the field in order to escape Evanston, Ill., with the win. 

Defensive domination

Friday’s win against Temple was one of Duke’s best defensive performances of all time—it had been more than 30 years since the Blue Devils last shut out an FBS team in 1989. The shutout seemed to validate exactly why Duke hired Elko, as the defensive-minded, first-time head coach began his Duke tenure by completely blanking his opponent. That has led to a positive mood in Durham after one week of play.

“We pretty confident going in this week and the momentum is staying here,” said Calhoun.

To secure a second win, Duke needs to tap into this momentum and confidence Saturday—its defense will now have to contend with a Northwestern offense that opened its season with an impressive performance against Nebraska. The Wildcats certainly have a more imposing offensive attack than the Owls did Friday, and Duke will rely on its key defensive pieces—linebacker DeWayne Carter comes to mind—to contain Northwestern so that Leonard and the Duke offense can spend more time on the field putting points on the board for the Blue Devils. 

Tune out the noise

The excitement surrounding the Blue Devils has been particularly strong ever since Elko’s hiring—a fresh start always seems to reinvigorate interest in a program—and Friday’s riveting performance only increased the hype. While the noise has been largely positive, it still has the potential to distract the players from what matters most: executing on the field. Duke needs to stay within itself, avoid getting caught up in sunny media coverage and continue to play focused football so that the Temple win becomes more the norm for the Blue Devils than a happy anomaly. 


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