Northwestern comes into Saturday’s game having dropped its opening two games to a team from the MAC and, more recently, a 9-7 loss to FCS level opponent Illinois State. This from a Wildcat squad that many expected to be among the top 25 teams in the country.
Meanwhile, the season began well enough for Duke as the Blue Devils ran out to a 49-0 halftime lead against NC Central. From that point, however, Duke’s offense has been inconsistent and, dare we say, somewhat unimaginative in being out-scored by the Eagles 6-0 in the second half of the opener and then in the loss to Wake Forest.
The loss to the Demon Deacons was enough to prompt some criticism from head coach David Cutcliffe who noted his team “played hard, but didn’t play well” while also noting his desire for and surprise that no second teamers seemed ready to push the first teamers for their spot.
Expanding on the Blue Devil head coach’s point, his team’s offense didn’t run the ball at all against the Deacons (37 yards rushing) and didn’t really protect their freshman quarterback (5 sacks) either. Most of those problems can be traced the Duke offensive line, which will be tested again by a Wildcat defensive front that held Illinois State to 85 yards rushing, and who controlled the line of scrimmage in Northwestern’s win over Duke last year in Wallace Wade Stadium.
Perhaps the best news for Duke going forward is that the game is on the road. That may seem an odd statement for a program that just renovated its stadium and upgraded the entirety of its facilitates. And yet, Duke has been a much better road team over the last two seasons, winning 13 of its last 16 road games.
In order to make that 14 of 17, Duke will need to limit turnovers (currently -4 on the season with eight giveaways) while also matching the level of physical play that seemed to be the difference in last year’s nine point Wildcat win.
“We know we're going to have to battle in the trenches a lot,” said Duke safety DeVon Edwards. “They have some big guys and they ran the ball pretty well against us, better than they threw it against us (last year), so we expect them to attack us with that. We've got to do a better job than we did last year."
Where Duke may be more effective in the matchup this year is in the passing game where, when he is able to stay vertical, redshirt freshman Daniel Jones has proven to be a potentially dynamic signal caller for Coach Cutcliffe. He completed 32 of 41 passes for 322 yards against Wake Forest while also showing the ability to make the Blue Devils dangerous down field.
Ultimately we expect another close game between the two programs with the winner being the team who can minimize turnovers and find an explosive play or two along the way.
Prediction: Duke 24, Northwestern 20