After a solid all-around win against Lafayette in Week 2, No. 21 Duke will be looking to improve its record to 3-0 to open the season. The Blue Devils have played two strong games against a strong team in Clemson and an FCS group in the Leopards, and now come against their first non-conference FBS opponent when the Wildcats come to town Saturday.
Northwestern experienced what can only be described as a shelling during its 2022 campaign. The Wildcats went an atrocious 1-11 on the season, with their only win coming in the first matchup of the year against a weak Nebraska group — in Ireland. The offseason was even worse for this group, as a hazing scandal rocked the coaching staff and led to the departure of then-head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Now, the group is under the control of interim head coach and defensive coordinator David Braun. While it is certainly too early to tell, it seems like Braun has taken the team in the right direction. The Wildcats opened their year with a loss at Rutgers, but bounced back in a big way for Week 2. There, Northwestern came out on top of a 38-7 victory against UTEP. In that game, running back Cam Porter rushed for 90 yards and quarterback Ben Bryant threw for another 116.
Porter has been a major factor in the Northwestern offense so far this season, tacking on an additional six receptions for another 40 yards on the season.The Blue Devils will need to gear their defense toward Porter and his ability to break out, like he is liable to do at times. That means keeping an eye on him both as a rushing threat and also through the air.
“I think their running back Cam Porter is a really talented player,” said Duke head coach Mike Elko in a press conference this week. “We played against him last year, I thought he was a really effective runner.”
The other big name in the Wildcat attack is Bryant. The Cincinnati transfer has had a strong start to his season, as well. He put up the aforementioned 116 yards against UTEP, and another 169 against the Scarlet Knights. On the year, he has averaged a solid 58.5% completion rate, sitting at 5.4 yards per attempt. That being said, Bryant is not an especially mobile quarterback. He prefers to sit in the pocket and allow his running backs to work, which will give Duke an opportunity to turn up the pressure.
If the Blue Devils can collapse that pocket and either force Bryan to scramble or throw the ball away early, then it will be a long night for the Wildcat offense. Look for Elko to bring the pressure early and often to throw the attack off its rhythm.
On the defensive side of the ball, there is some returning talent. Redshirt senior Coco Azema is the big name there, as the 5-foot-11 defensive back continues to terrorize opposing receivers. While he missed much of the season last year with an injury, he made his presence felt during the first three games of the 2022 campaign. Azema recorded a sack and 20 tackles in 2022, and will be back with a vengeance in his last year. That being said, this is not the first time that Elko and the Duke offense have seen this.
“They've got a really good safety. Number zero, Coco Azema, who does a really nice job,” Elko said. “We played against him last year and thought he was really talented last year. Still think he is. I think he's one of their biggest playmakers on defense.”
With Azema sitting downfield, quarterback Riley Leonard will need to keep a close eye on his position. Receivers that look open in the moment may very quickly become covered. One option to fix that downfield will be to have wideouts run routes across the middle, forcing Azema to choose who to cover. Duke should also be careful to keep track of him in the pass rush, as he recorded a sack against the Cornhuskers in last year’s opener.
Ultimately, a few strong players will not save a Wildcats team that has struggled mightily over the past few years. The Blue Devils are far and away the stronger group. As long as Elko works to limit big plays on either side of the ball for Northwestern, Duke should be able to close this one out nicely. That being said, if the Blue Devils get sloppy or overconfident, it might end up going the other way.
“We're gonna have to prepare,” Elko said. “It's nice to get a full week of practice and preparation, and then get an opportunity to go out there and play our best football on Saturday.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.