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5 things to know before Duke football takes the field against Northwestern, looking to move to 3-0

Jordan Waters (left) and Riley Leonard (right) celebrate during Duke's win against Lafayette.
Jordan Waters (left) and Riley Leonard (right) celebrate during Duke's win against Lafayette.

The Blue Devils are off to a hot start, and they are looking to keep it rolling. After upsetting then-No. 9 Clemson in Week 1 and following it up by cruising to victory against FCS foe Lafayette, Duke finishes up its season-opening three-game homestand against Northwestern.

Although a matchup with a Big Ten opponent would typically indicate a difficult test for the Blue Devils, the Wildcats come to Durham as heavy underdogs.

Here are five things to know before Duke takes the field looking to move to 3-0 Saturday afternoon:

Maintain accuracy

Junior quarterback Riley Leonard and redshirt freshman Henry Belin IV diced up the Leopards, becoming the first pair of quarterbacks at the FBS level to each throw for 100 yards without throwing an incompletion in the same game since 1996. Despite rainy conditions, the Blue Devil signal callers remained poised and led a methodical passing attack.

Although the Northwestern defense will likely pose a more formidable test, look for Leonard to maintain his steady play through the air. As Duke continues to move through nonconference play in preparation for the ACC gauntlet that awaits, it is imperative that the Fairhope, Ala., native stays in a groove through the air. Leonard is yet to throw an interception this season, though he has only attempted 45 passes.

Flaunt physicality

Despite the Wildcats’ turbulent offseason, including the firing of former head coach Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern remains a large, physical football team. The Blue Devils have a chance to show off their ability to punish in the trenches and dominate the line of scrimmage regardless of the size across from them.

“Obviously, they’re a Big Ten team, so they’re big and they’re physical,” said head coach Mike Elko about the Wildcats in his weekly press conference. “They’ve been very physical. They’re very stout.”

Saturday will be another opportunity for Duke to prove that its offseason strength and conditioning program was effective. If the Blue Devils are able to impose their will against the Northwestern fronts, it will be a good indicator for success the remainder of the season.

Ball security

After ranking second in the nation last season in turnover margin, Duke has coughed up three fumbles through its first two games this year. A muffed punt off the hands of redshirt senior Jalon Calhoun proved costly in the opener as the Tigers quickly punched it in for their only score of the game, while Jaquez Moore fumbled once in each game.

The Blue Devils need to get back to their turnover-free ways against Northwestern before heading on the road for a Week 4 matchup with UConn. The rushing attack has been missing experienced back Jaylen Coleman, who was sidelined due to injury for Duke’s first two games. Elko said the Blue Devils “hope to have him back this week.” Coleman had 102 carries last year without a fumble, so the graduate student is a set of sure hands for offensive coordinator Kevin Johns to rely on.

Defensive prowess

Defense wins championships, and first-year defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci has impressed thus far. Duke has allowed just seven points against both of its first two opponents. This scoring defense puts the Blue Devils at eighth in the country, which is especially impressive given that many of the teams ranked above them have yet to play a Power 5 opponent.

The defense as a whole is experienced, but it starts with the front seven. The Wildcats have allowed seven sacks through two games, placing them at 117th in the country. Duke, which has four sacks this season, will be looking to get into the backfield to disrupt Northwestern’s offensive operation and bring signal caller Ben Bryant to the turf.

Northwestern dominance

Despite being an out-of-conference opponent, the Wildcats are a familiar foe. The Blue Devils have matched up with the squad from Evanston, Ill., six times since 2015, with Duke emerging victorious in the four most recent contests. Leonard led his team to victory against Northwestern last season by a score of 31-23 in a competitive Week 2 matchup.

However, the Blue Devils are not used to entering the matchup as a heavy favorite. Duke is expecting to take care of business Saturday and improve to 3-0, but it cannot overlook the Wildcats. In order for Elko and his squad to reach their lofty 2023 goals, they cannot afford to drop this game.


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