By Charlie Heveran
Another year, another early season matchup between the Duke Blue Devils and the Northwestern Wildcats. Entering the final year of a four-year series between the two Power Five private schools, Northwestern holds a 2-1 advantage.
Last year, the Wildcats endured a beatdown at the hands of the Blue Devils, losing 41-17 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke went on to compile a 4-0 record before dropping six straight and finishing the season 7-6 after a bowl win, and they project to have a similar year. Northwestern hopes to avenge their loss that kept them from being the first Wildcats team in history to reach 11 wins.
2012 ACC Head Coach of the Year David Cutcliffe will return for year 11 with the Blue Devils, sporting a 59-67 career record. In spite of this less-than-stellar record, Cutcliffe has been a sign of stability for the Duke faithful after the team sported to a 4-42 record from 2004 to 2007.
Duke Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
Despite Cutcliffe’s reputation as an offensive guru and QB-whisperer, having coached both Peyton and Eli Manning in his career, the Duke offense was lackluster in 2017; the Blue Devils ranked 88th in the nation in total offense, while Northwestern clocked in at 55th in the nation.
Redshirt junior quarterback and team captain Daniel Jones will return for his third season at the helm of the offense. Jones earned himself national recognition as one of only three quarterbacks last season to have over 2,500 passing yards and 500 rushing yards, along with Clemson’s Kelly Bryant and Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke. Look for him to do some damage to a Northwestern secondary that graduated two stars at safety, Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike. Jones has his number one receiving option returning as well, senior TJ Rahming, who racked up 795 receiving yards in 2017.
The Blue Devils did not have a 1,000+ yard rusher in 2017. Instead, they had two 700+ yard rushers, Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown, in addition to QB Daniel Jones who rushed for 518 yards. Wilson has since graduated and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so look for Brown to make an impact on the ground this year as the clear starting running back. In the nine games that Brown carried the ball 10 or more times, Duke held a 7-2 record, but during their four-game losing streak beginning in October, Brown never had more than seven rushing attempts. Duke is only returning two starters on the offensive line, so expect them to struggle at the beginning of the season with getting their offensive machine up-and-running.
Northwestern lost several key starters from their 34th-ranked defense last year. Look for junior corner Montre Hartage to step up in the absence of secondary stalwarts Queiro and Igwebuike. Big Ten Freshman Defensive Player of the Year Paddy Fisher will also be leading the defense from the linebacker position. It will be a tall task to stop Daniel Jones and the Duke offense, but if the Wildcats can slow down the run game and keep the pressure on Jones, expect him to struggle. In the four games where Jones had more than 40 passing attempts last season, he threw seven interceptions.
Northwestern Offense vs. Duke Defense
Quarterback Clayton Thorson will hopefully make his return from a torn ACL in time for the season, which would open up both the Wildcats’ passing and running games against a stout Duke defense that ranked 21st in the nation in total offense allowed and intercepted 15 passes. If Thorson is not able to play week two, expect Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald to roll out a more conservative offensive game plan similar to what he did in the Music City Bowl, when Justin Jackson and Jeremy Larkin took on a heavier workload after Thorson left the game with an injury.
Duke linebacker Joe Giles-Harris will anchor one of the best linebacker corps in the ACC. Giles-Harris was ranked as the No. 3 outside linebacker in the nation by Sports Illustrated going into this season.
Meanwhile, SI rated fellow defensive standout cornerback Mark Gilbert as the No. 7 cornerback in the nation. Thorson has proven somewhat turnover-prone at times (12 interceptions last year), and Gilbert tallied 6 picks by himself, so if Thorson is playing, expect him to avoid throwing at Gilbert.
On the bright side for Northwestern’s offense, Duke’s defensive coordinator since 2010, Jim Knowles, was hired to be the new defensive coordinator for Oklahoma State. It’s hard to say what kind of defense will be seen from Duke’s new internally-promoted co-defensive coordinators, Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri, but in all likelihood it won’t be quite as good as the Blue Devils stalwart defense of last season.
Many Northwestern fans expected the Wildcats to easily roll over the notoriously mediocre Blue Devil football team for the third year straight last season, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The Northwestern Wildcats need to finish this four year series strong with a win to show that they are truly capable of taking the next step and perhaps earning a trip to the Big Ten championship game.