Opponent Preview: Duke

By Ryan Choe

Northwestern football returns from a victorious trip abroad to host the Duke Blue Devils on Sept. 10 – the first game at Ryan Field in 2022. 

The ‘Cats are back in action following a bye week last week. The team edged out a thrilling season-opener against Nebraska and aims to keep the momentum rolling against Duke. The Blue Devils had a tumultuous 2021 season (3-9, 0-8 ACC), but made a strong statement in their Week 1 game against Temple, winning 30-0. 

There are many new faces along the Duke coaching staff this year, including Head Coach Mike Elko, and some have ties to Evanston. New Assistant Coach Adam Cushing was Northwestern’s offensive line coach from 2004-2018 and Offensive Coordinator Kevin Johns was the running backs and wide receivers coach for the ‘Cats from 2004-2010.

With QB inconsistency plaguing the ‘Cats over the past four years, there is newfound confidence and relief following Ryan Hilinski’s strong performance in Ireland that the offense is capable of threatening defenses, both through the air and on the ground. While Hilinski had an award-worthy performance in the victory over Nebraska, Duke quarterback Riley Leonard arguably had an even more impressive outing against Temple. The sophomore completed 24 of 30 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers on top of leading his team with 64 rushing yards on 11 attempts. 

Much of Leonard’s success will depend on the improvements and adjustments from Northwestern Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neil and the Wildcats’ defense, which surrendered 465 total yards to Nebraska. After surrendering 213.25 average rushing yards per game in 2021, the ‘Cats improved and limited the Cornhuskers to 110 rushing yards (this includes the explosive 46-yard touchdown run by Anthony Grant in the third quarter). This is a testament to Northwestern’s ability to control the line of scrimmage and the positive impacts from transfers Taishan Holmes (UMass), Henrik Barndt (Indiana State) and Ryan Johnson (Stanford) along the defensive line. However, defending the pass leaves much to be desired. 

The secondary got off to a slow start against Nebraska, with Cornhuskers quarterback Casey Thompson throwing a touchdown over NU senior A.J Hampton in the opening drive of the game. Hampton had a couple more passes completed over him until he went down with an injury late in the first quarter. While the defense did not yield another passing touchdown for the rest of the game, Thompson still went on to throw for 355 yards (last year the defense gave up 216.5 average passing yards per game). 

On the bright side, junior Coco Azema and senior transfer Jeremiah Lewis (Duke) finished second and third in tackles against Nebraska proving that the secondary brings a physical element as well. Junior Cam Mitchell tied Lewis with six tackles while also corralling an interception. Juniors Garnett Hollis and Rod Heard also cycled in the game, but all members of the secondary rotation have their hands full with a Duke team that had four receivers post 49 or more receiving yards against Temple.

Perhaps the biggest thing to keep an eye out is the linebacker play. Junior Bryce Gallagher led the defense with 10 tackles against Nebraska and junior Xander Mueller caught the game-sealing interception. They will be responsible for containing any breakaway runs on the second level, particularly when it comes to any scrambling or designed runs for Leonard. 

Against the Blue Devils last year, Gunnar Holmberg threw for 314 passing yards and ran for another 46 yards picking up momentous first downs as a result. Quarterbacks with running ability have historically given Northwestern trouble (remember Adrian Martinez?), so the Wildcat linebackers may be asked to spy Leonard if he gets into a productive scrambling rhythm. A more active pass rush led by senior Adetomiwa Adebawore along the defensive line would also go a long way.

If the ‘Cats want to get their first win against Duke since 2016, they’ll need to win the turnover battle. Northwestern and Duke both finished +2 over their first opponents in this category, and Duke was +2 over the ‘Cats last year. Northwestern will need a greedier defense to generate takeaways.

The all-time record in 20 football matchups between the two academic blue bloods is tied with 10 wins and losses each. However, the ‘Cats have lost the last three meetings.

Score prediction: ‘Cats win, 24-21

Bold prediction: Donny Navarro leads the ‘Cats in receptions and catches his second touchdown of the season