Opponent Preview: Duke

By Andrew Neville

In week number three of the 2021 football season, Northwestern will travel southeast to Durham, North Carolina, to square off with its second non-conference foe of the season, the Duke Blue Devils.

Duke is coming off a disappointing 2020 season in which the team was only able to defeat Charlotte and Syracuse on its way to a 2-9 campaign. The Blue Devils have been on a downward slide ever since posting back-to-back winning records in 2017 and 2018.

These two teams have clashed many times in the past, with the series tied at 10 wins apiece dating back to the first meeting in September of 1985, which Duke won 40-17. The most recent contest came back in 2018 when Duke won 21-7 in week two of the season. 

Each team has taken a very different trajectory since that 2018 meeting. Coming into this contest, the ‘Cats are trying to establish themselves as a perennial Big Ten West power while the Blue Devils are looking to get back on their feet. For Northwestern to attain this goal of sustained success, they must take care of beatable non-conference opponents such as these Duke Blue Devils.

Here are some things to expect from the game:

1. Northwestern will keep the ball on the ground:

The Blue Devil secondary was relatively menacing last year, holding opponents to only 231.6 yards per game through the air, good enough for fifth in the 14-team ACC. Therefore, it’ll be tough for Ryan Hilinski or whoever is quarterbacking the Wildcats to get much going downfield. Instead, the weight of the offense will likely fall on the shoulders of Cam Porter and the rest of the Northwestern backfield. Duke allowed an abysmal 213.2 ypg on the ground last season, so the ‘Cats backs should be able to find some holes in the Blue Devil defensive line. If the ‘Cats come near that 210-yard mark on the ground, Northwestern has a great chance of winning this game.

2. The Sky Team will get some opportunities:

Despite the loss of first-round draft pick Greg Newsome, the Northwestern secondary, dubbed the Sky Team, remains a threat to pick off opposing quarterbacks. Duke is a team that likes to throw the ball a lot, and luckily for the Wildcats, the Blue Devils don’t tend to do it overly well, so expect the secondary to snag a couple of picks in this game. The Northwestern offense should anticipate some of the Blue Devils’ questionable decisions and be ready to pounce on any opportunities for turnovers.

3. Special Teams:

Each team returns some depth at the special teams positions that could change the game. Duke returns both starting kicker Charlie Ham, who has a rocket for a leg after going 13-15 in field goals with a long of 47 yards in his freshman year, and starting punter Porter Wilson who averaged over 42 yards per punt last season. Northwestern returns both pounder Derek Adams and kicker Charlie Khubander thanks to the extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic. Overall, it appears as though the Blue Devils have an advantage in the all-important third phase, but if the ‘Cats control the other two phases of the game, then this point should be made moot. 

Prediction: Thanks to a 150-yard game from Cam Porter and a few timely turnovers, Northwestern comes back home with a 27-17 victory over the Blue Devils.