Previewing Duke vs. Northwestern

The Blue Devils will try and extend their two game winning streak this Saturday against Big 10 foe Northwestern. The Wildcats are licking their wounds after a 44-14 shellacking at the hands of Miami of Ohio. They will be looking to erase a two-game losing streak, and given their recent history against Duke (4 game winning streak), they should feel pretty good about their chances. Lets take an in-depth look at how the teams match up.

When Duke has the ball:

Duke has been successful running the ball so far in 2003. Chris Douglas is the ACC's leading rusher after 3 games, averaging 101.7 yards per game and an impressive 5.2 yards per carry. He is not alone either. Last years' team-MVP Alex Wade looked to be back at top form last week. He has been limited to spot duty so far this year due to a hamstring strain. With Wade back at full speed, expect the Devils to try and pound the ball directly at the Northwestern defensive front. The Devil offensive line will have a bit of a blocking challenge this week. So far the Devils have faced smaller, quicker defensive fronts. The Cats DL, however, averages about 290 lbs per man. They are not as quick as the other fronts Duke has seen, but they can definitely clog the running lanes.

This also could end up being the breakout week for Duke freshman QB Mike Schneider. Schneider, the current ACC Freshman of the week, had a solid game against Rice, throwing for 188 yards, 2 touchdowns, and one interception. The numbers are a bit deceiving though, as Schneider had 3-4 balls dropped by the wide receivers, including a touchdown pass. The receivers must hang on to the ball. The Northwestern pass allowed 370 yards passing to Miami QB Ben Rothlesberger on Saturday. Granted, he's a NFL prospect, but they were completely unable to do anything to slow Miami down.

When Northwestern has the ball:

The Wildcats usually spread the field with 4 wide receivers, but that doesn't necessarily mean they throw the ball all the time. The Wildcats take advantage of the spread out defense to both run and pass. Their first ground option, RB Jason Wright, has run for 324 yards in 3 games, including 196 yards in their opening day win against Kansas. QB Brett Basanez is also a good runner. He is nursing a sprained shoulder, but is expected to go this weekend. Basanez has, however, struggled with his passing so far this year, throwing 5 interceptions with only 1 touchdown. The Blue Devil secondary has been a surprise so far in 2003, leading the ACC in pass defense. The Duke linebackers will be challenged in coverage this week. Players on the spot will be OLBs Brendan Dewan, DeAndre White, and Malcolm Ruff. They will most likely have to cover WR on some of the plays. They are all fast enough to do so, but are relatively untested dropping into coverage.

Just like their defensive line, the Wildcat offensive line has great size, averaging 310 lbs per man. The Duke defensive line will definitely be tested by this front 5, especially at DE. The Duke defensive ends average about 240 lbs per man. If the Wildcats line up in tighter formations, their tackles will have a huge advantage over their smaller opponents. If the Cats spread the field as normal, the Duke DE's will have more space to operate in, and will become much more effective.

Keys to the game:

1. Stop the run: Duke was #1 in the ACC in run defense just one season ago. This season, they are being lit up on the ground, giving up an average of 185 yards per game rushing. For Duke to stop Northwestern on offense, they must first stop the running game. The improvement must come at the point of attack, with the defensive linemen either getting off blocks quickly, or pushing the offensive linemen backwards. Doing either or both of these things will disrupt the rhythm in the Wildcats' offensive backfield.

2. Keep it up on special teams: One of the most pleasant surprises for the Blue Devils this year is the play on special teams. The punt and kickoff coverage units have been among the ACC's best so far, and the kicking game really came around against Rice. Duke must continue to cover kicks and punts well. They must also come up with at least one or two good returns (30 yards or more) to give the offense better field position.

3. Schneider's development: Duke QB Mike Schneider played fairly well in his first full college game. He did make plenty of mistakes, however, that need attention during the week. Better understanding of where his secondary options are on pass routes, and better defensive scheme recognition are two steps he must take to make the Duke offense truly effective. He has all the tools: pocket awareness, good mobility and a rifle arm. If he can put it together and take the pressure off of the running game, the Duke offense will become much more difficult to defend.

Final Analysis:

This is a benchmark game for both teams in the 2003 season. Both schools desperately need a win to give them momentum heading into their conference slates. Both coaches are firmly on the line for the job this season, and a loss for either will significantly damage their chances of being retained in 2004.

As for on the field drama, Duke is coming off a narrow victory against an opponent they should have handled easily. It was still a victory, however. Northwestern is coming off of a white-washing by a team from a mid-major conference. They will definitely be out for blood against an opponent they've beaten 4 straight times. Duke should have the momentum, but who knows how the Wildcats will react to their poor performance last week.

Duke has a lot to prove to itself defensively this week. The run defense has been abysmal in 2 out of 3 games this year. The only good performance was against a 1-AA opponent. This is a far cry from the #1 run defense in the ACC from a year ago. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof must get the front 7 to refocus and get the job done against the run. If anyone can pull this off, it is Ted Roof.

Offensively, Duke should be able to run the ball against, alternating Douglas and a now healthy Alex Wade. Expect the Devils to run for about 175 yards. The difference will be through the air this week. Schneider was a few dropped passes away from a big day last week. I have a feeling the receiver are going to hang on to the ball this week, and Duke will crack the 30 point barrier for the first time this season.

Final Score:

Duke - 34 Northwestern - 24

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