By Bo Bowen
With Northwestern coming off a week No. 1 win over Nevada, Pat Fitzgerald will look to keep the ‘Cats rolling, heading into Durham to face Duke this Saturday. Duke returns some key starters and will likely pose a tougher challenge for Northwestern this year than last, when the Wildcats defeated the Blue Devils 24-13 at Ryan Field in week No. 3. And with that, here are five things to watch for this week.
- Clayton Thorson’s progression – The Northwestern offense goes as its 6’4”, big-bodied quarterback goes. Thorson passed for 352 yards against Nevada to go along with 2 rushing touchdowns. Last year, he passed for 320 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Blue Devils. Duke returns an improved front-7 on defense and will look to pressure Thorson into making some mistakes. If Thorson limits turnovers, Duke’s defense may have trouble stopping the Clayton Thorson-led Northwestern offense.
- Who will step up at wide receiver? – Losing Austin Carr, a Billetnikoff finalist last year, hurts. Pat Fitzgerald will need to fill that hole if he wants his offense to play to its potential. There were a few bright spots in the game last Saturday. Sophomore receiver Bennett Skowronek nabbed a game-high 123 yards on 8 receptions. Senior Macan Wilson also tallied 77 yards and a score. With regular starter Flynn Nagel in the mix, Northwestern looks to be spreading the ball around its receiving core and should be able to pick on a fairly inexperienced Duke secondary.
- Has Duke’s offense improved that much? – Starting quarterback Daniel Jones is only a sophomore. With a full year of experience under his belt, he should be an improved play-caller for Duke. The Blue Devils are also more talented than last year at running back, with freshman Brittain Brown sharing duties with senior Shaun Wilson. Add a deeper receiving core, and this looks like an offense that could give Northwestern some trouble, unlike the unit the Wildcats saw last season.
- How has Northwestern’s defense rebuilt? – Losing All-B1G players Anthony Walker Jr. and Ifeadi Odenigbo to the NFL draft left some large holes on Northwestern’s defense. The secondary, led by Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Quiero, was third in the Big Ten in interceptions last year. If the front seven can fill holes and pressure Daniel Jones, it may force the young quarterback to rush some throws.
- Can Justin Jackson continue his production? – There are few certainties in life: death, taxes, and that Justin Jackson runs the ball — a lot. Jackson carried the ball 30 times on Saturday against Nevada and rushed for over 109 yards. He’s been a staple on Northwestern’s offense ever since walking onto campus. The big question is: can he continue his production? Northwestern’s offensive line is improved from last season, but there still are questions up front. If Northwestern can win the battle of the trenches against a pretty good Duke D-line Saturday, it should be able to win the war. And thankfully for Wildcat fans, freshman tailback Jeremy Larkin logged an impressive debut last week, showing that Northwestern’s run game has a bright future after Jackson graduates this year.
So there you have it. Northwestern will look to continue its recent dominance of Duke game this Saturday, aiming to win for the third time in three years. Beating the Blue Devils should be more challenging this year than in years past though, as Northwestern will face a should-be-improved ACC opponent in the Blue Devils.