1. CAN THE OFFENSE KEEP IT UP AGAINST A MUCH TOUGHER OPPONENT?
Through two games the Blue Devils have been putting up the kind of numbers you’d see when playing a video game. On easy. Through two weeks Duke has produced 592.0 yards per game with a quarterback accounting for 379.0 yards per contest. Not only are the Blue Devils moving the ball, they are also enjoying a scoring output of 46 points per contest.
With stats like those it’s clear that Duke has been terrific on the offensive side of the ball, but that production has come against a pair of clearly overmatched opponents. That won’t be the case on Saturday when Northwestern comes to Wallace Wade Stadium.
The Wildcats will bring a defense that has been as good as the Duke offense. In wins over Stanford and Eastern Illinois, Northwestern’s defense has allowed only 189.0 yards per game and a total of six points allowed in eight quarters.
“They play together so well,” said Duke head coach David Cutcliffe of the Northwestern defense. “They are talented obviously. They are big, they are strong. They are athletic in the back end. They have got athletic linebackers and safeties and corners. But they just play together so well. They have eight returning starters and their other guys have played a lot. They do play a lot of people but they just don't make mistakes.”
Not only have the Wildcats been really good against the run (see below), but also against the pass. Northwestern ranks 21st in the county in total sacks, recording six over the first two weeks. It starts with junior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo who ranks 19th in the nation with 2.5 sacks.
That kind of pressure forces opponents into challenging situations when thinking of down and distance, which leads to short possessions. All told, the Wildcats have held opponents to just 3-for-26 on third down to lead the Big Ten and rank third in the country in 3rd Down Conversion Percentage Defense (11.5 percent).
2. CAN DUKE ESTABLISH A GROUND GAME?
A big portion of Duke’s offensive success can be traced to the consistent performance of the running game. With Thomas Sirk, Shaun Wilson, and Shaquille Powell, the Blue Devils have been able to gobble up big chunks of yards early on, which leads to manageable situations on second and third down.
The Blue Devils recorded 206 yards in the season opener against Tulane and followed that up with 288 yards on the ground against NC Central. It’s a two game average of 247.0 yards per contest, and will be a key point to watch on Saturday. As good as the Duke running game has been, the Northwestern run defense may have been better.
The Wildcats, playing a very physical style and controlling the line of scrimmage, are allowing just 2.8 yards per rush. And they are doing it with players who fit a similar template to the one being used in Durham.
“They are unique and they are really big up front, their front four,” said Cutcliffe. “nd then you look at their linebackers, and you would call them really athletic; not exceptionally big, not small, but athletic, and then a secondary that's really athletic. They know what they are doing. They are schematically really good.”
Entering Saturday’s contest the Wildcats are ranked 17th in the country against the run, surrendering just 77.5 yards per game on the ground.
3. CAN THE BLUE DEVIL DEFENSE STOP THE WILDCAT RUSHING ATTACK?
While the Wildcats have been terrific defending the run, Duke has been even better through two games. The Blue Devils enter Saturday allowing just 39.5 yards per contest to opponents - good enough to rank fifth in the nation.
On the flip side, Northwestern’s offense is heavily reliant on the run and the Wildcats are averaging nearly 285 yards per contest on the ground. Northwestern ran the ball 69 times for 344 yards on Saturday against Eastern Illinois. In that game the team had five different players - Warren Long, Corey Acker, Auston Anderson, Tom Hruby and Jelani Roberts - finish with career highs in rushing yards.
A season ago the conventional wisdom was that you could and should run against Duke. Fast forward 12 months and you have a Duke defense that is bigger up front, faster at linebacker, and more experienced in the secondary. According to Coach Cutcliffe, that mixture of elements has resulted in success in stopping opponents.
“I think that opener, our team, we were very determined after a year ago giving up as many yards rushing as we did to Tulane to make a better show. But we are playing a lot of people and we are able to stay fresh. I think we are faster and more athletic.”
“And the experience of the secondary is a big part of the run defense. Again we all realize, and it's easy when you turn on the tape, that we will be challenged in a much different way this week.”
4. CAN DUKE FLUSTER AN INEXPERIENCED QB?
If Duke can slow down the Wildcat running game, there’s a good chance the Blue Devils can grab a third victory on the season. Northwestern has a capable, but generally unproven redshirt freshman under center who will be playing his first true road game.
Still, during the games of his career, Clayton Thorson has been a caretaker devoid of mistakes. He’s completed 23-of-40 passes for 257 yards and no interceptions on the season. But, if Duke can ramp up the pressure and force Thorson to assume a bigger role, it could be the deciding factor and the Blue Devils are approaching this game looking at the program and not the player.
“They are very systematic. They do what Northwestern does, regardless of who basically is at quarterback. We all alter little things based on talents, but he can throw it, he can run it. There are not any major differences in what they’re doing this year and what they’ve done in the past. I looked at them all summer, and all our early opponents and I’ve watched all their seasons from last year. There’s not that big of an adjustment. They’re very versatile on offense. They give you a lot of formation problems. They know, on both sides of the ball schematically, very well what they’re doing.”
5. CAN DUKE RISE TO THE CHALLENGE?
In each of the first two games it was clear that the Blue Devils were the superior squad. Bigger, faster, and stronger than both Tulane and NC Central. Now the opponent changes to a Power Five, big conference team who is experienced. In order to answer the call, Coach Cutcliffe believes his team must play with discipline and continued strong execution. The Duke coach said he was quite pleased with what he saw a week ago.
“I think one of the best parts of our game last week is that our best play came in the third quarter. Our guys took it to another level. Our effort, our execution, all of it, which is what you should do.”
Off the field the program will look for another near sellout crowd at the new Wallace Wade who hope to see…
Duke - 23
Northwestern - 17