Northwestern will head to Durham, N.C. in week two to face Duke for the third time in a four-year series. The ‘Cats hold a 2-0 advantage so far, after winning 24-13 last season in Evanston.
The Blue Devils were bad last season, going 4-8 and just 1-7 in the ACC. They were hampered by a season-ending injury to first string quarterback Thomas Sirk and a multitude of injuries that decimated the defensive unit. It was an unfortunate setback for head coach David Cutcliffe who ended a 17-year postseason drought with four straight bowl trips from 2012 to 2015.
The good news for Duke is that the four postseason trips improved recruiting, and the roster’s potential could eventually contend in a loaded ACC. The bad news is that potential means nothing in a loaded ACC, and Duke projects to be bad, again. The ACC media preseason rankings have Duke to finish sixth in the Coastal Division behind Miami, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Pitt and UNC.
The S&P+ Ratings derived by Bill Connelly projects Duke to be the 65th best team in College Football after they finished 72nd last year. The ratings give Duke a 46 percent chance to defeat Northwestern, and favor the Wildcats by 1.7 points.
Northwestern finished a somewhat disappointing 7-6 last season, although the Pinstripe Bowl win over Pittsburgh highlighted the obvious potential for the team. The Wildcats were done in, record-wise, by its two opening non-conference losses to Western Michigan, and Illinois State.
The Wildcats have the talent to make 2017 one of the best years in program history, and that journey starts with disposing of Nevada, Duke and Bowling Green without any hiccups to get to Wisconsin at 3-0 . If the ‘Cats defeat Nevada in expected dominating fashion, Northwestern should be favored by Vegas to defeat Duke by about 7-8 points.
Duke Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
The strength of Cutcliffe’s roster is his passing attack, and sophomore Daniel Jones was thrown into a pass-heavy offense last season and gained meaningful experience. Sophomores T.J. Rahming, Chris Taylor, Johnathan Lloyd, Daniel Helm, and Davis Koppenhaver combined for 171 receptions last year, and are all returning. The Blue Devils employ a dink-and-dunk style of short passes, evidenced by their averaging 40 pass attempts a game last season and completing just 16 passes over 30 yards.
Duke had almost no running game last year and their offense became quite one-dimensional. If Jones can get downfield himself (averaged nine carries a game last season), and running back Shaun Wilson can break some plays, it would open up the field much more. The offensive line did lose Casey Blaser and Tanner Stone who had a combined 63 starts, and all of Wilson’s backups in the backfield are freshmen or redshirt freshman. It remains likely that Duke will be rather one-dimensional as they try to grind defenses down with quick completions.
Northwestern’s secondary faces the key battle of shutting down Duke’s offense. Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro, Montre Hartage and Keith Watkins II all are returning for a unit that could reprise its 2015 role as a top-five secondary in the country. The one question mark is if Watkins can shake off his rust, as he missed all of last season with an injury. Hartage and Watkins should be good enough to press Duke’s receiving corps, force incompletions and get Duke into third and longs, where Jones should be forced into making bad decisions throwing downfield.
The Wildcats’ front seven will have to stop the Duke running game early to ensure Duke remains committed to the pass, but it shouldn’t be too hard for Tyler Lancaster, Jordan Thompson, Nate Hall and company. If edge rushers like Joe Gaziano can get pressure on Jones, it could be a long day for Duke.
Duke might be able to put together a few nice drives, but not the kind of explosive numbers that will be good enough to match the Wildcat attack.
Northwestern Offense vs Duke Defense
Duke’s defense had a solid start last season in the bend-don’t-break approach under coordinator Jim Knowles, but injuries depleted the roster and left Knowles without the players to execute his scheme. The Blue Devils finished 54th in S&P+ defensive rankings last season and were boosted by having the ninth best defense in the red zone, a stat that tends to fluctuate yearly.
Knowles has three seniors that can start but the rest of his defense is young and more likely to flash potential than on-the-field results. Outside of the aggressive linebacking trio of Tinashe Bere, Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys, there is little that looks ready in 2017.
Northwestern knows it has two dynamic weapons in Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson, but will need receivers to replace the production of Austin Carr who did it all last season. A subpar Duke secondary could be the perfect opportunity for Flynn Nagel, Macan Wilson, Bennett Skowronek, and graduate transfer Jalen Brown to explode onto the scene.
If not, Justin Jackson and his more than capable backup, John Moten IV, should still be too much to handle for Duke. The Wildcats would have to have an off day to put up anything less than 30 points and 400 total yards here.
Duke was 119th in S&P+ special teams ranking last year, thanks to having two freshmen at kicker and punter. AJ Reed was 3-for-8 on field goals under 40 yards and 0-for-2 outside of 40. Austin Parker was solid at punting with a 40.9 yard average, but the the coverage unit was 89th in the country, allowing 8.9 yards per return. Parker’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks only 14 percent of the time. Shaun Wilson is a capable kick returner Northwestern will have to watch.
Northwestern is not much better, having to replace Jack Mitchell with a new kicker, although Drew Luckenbaugh or Charlie Kuhbander could both be better than their predecessor. Hunter Niswander is an experienced punter and just needs to avoid the occasional duck and continue to increase his inside-20 totals. Solomon Vault’s season ending injury hurts, and the production in his absence is a complete tossup.
Going on the road early in the season is never easy and both teams will still be ironing out the kinks in week two. Duke, however, has much more flaws that it can’t paper over and Northwestern has too many playmakers on both sides of the ball. Don’t expect a close one.