Preview: Northwestern Wildcats (2-0)

The Blue Devils will once again try to end their NCAA-worst 22 game winning streak this weekend as they take on the Northwestern Wildcats up in Evanston, Illinois. The Wildcats are undefeated so far in 2007, having opened their season with wins over I-AA Northeastern and a dramatic come-from-behind nail-biter against Nevada.

The Wildcats would love nothing more than to hand Duke their 23rd straight loss, as they are the owners of the all-time Division 1 record of 34 losses in a row. Will this be the week where Duke can snap the streak? Let's take a look at the match-ups.

When Duke Has the Ball:

The Devils need to find an offensive rhythm. They have tried throwing short hitches and bubble screens. They have tried power running. They have tried the vertical passing game. None of these have worked very well, partly because there is no flow to the offense. This mostly comes from the lackluster play of the offensive line. The Devils have skill players that can make plays. QB Thad Lewis has shown in the past that he can be an effective thrower when he has time to make his reads. Lewis has struggled so far this season, in large part because he has not been able to get comfortable in the pocket. Also, the Duke running game has not been able to move the chains when needed. Justin Boyle, ReQuan Boyette, and Tielor Robinson all have been facing constant backfield pressure because the line is not holding the point of attack. Upperclassmen like center Matt Rumsey, and tackles Cam Goldberg and Fred Roland must step forward and start showing leadership by example if Duke is to score enough points to win ball games. Similarly, the wide receiver corps needs to step up and make things happen on the outside. Eron Riley, Jomar Wright, Rafael Chestnut and freshman Austin Kelly have size and skill, but they need to be more aggressive attacking the ball in the air.

The good news for the Blue Devils is that the Northwestern defense has not been very tough up front so far in 2007. They were able to hold 1-AA Northeastern to 260 yards of total offense, but were torched last week by Nevada, giving up 529 yards total. The Wolfpack was able to throw for over 300 yards and rush for almost 200. If Duke is going to move the ball against an opponent, this is the week to do it. The Wildcats are not forcing turnovers either, having only one interception to their credit. The Wildcats do have some good players though. Senior LB Adam Kadela is a force at linebacker. Surprisingly, their leader in tackles and tackles for loss is CB Sherrick McManis. Saftey Reggie McPherson is a steady veteran in the defensive backfield. Still, the Wildcats can be had at the line of scrimmage. Their defensive line has had problems holding the point of attack so far in 2007. If Duke can start blocking like they were at the end of 2006, they should be able to handle the Wildcat front.

Advantage: Even

When Northwestern Has the Ball:

This will be a tough match-up for the Blue Devil defense. The Wildcats love to run their offense out of the shotgun spread formation and throw lots of short passes. This will put the Blue Devils in a quandary. Will they force the action by blitzing and leave the pass defenders in one-on-one coverage or will they play it safe, keep the ball in front of them and rely on sure tackling. With Ted Roof as the defensive coordinator, expect Duke to try and make Wildcat QB C.J. Bacher throw the ball earlier than he wants to. Bacher has a bevy of options to throw to. The leading receiver is RB Tyrell Sutton with nine catches on the season. Six different receivers have at least five receptions a piece. The Duke defense will need to pick their poison in coverage. The Devils cannot ignore the run, however, as the Cats have two capable running backs in Sutton and Brandon Roberson. Sutton was banged up in last week's game, so his touches might be limited. Expect both backs to play. Despite the effectiveness of the skill positions and QB, the same cannot be said for the offensive line. They have been plagued with inconsistency and can be exploited with effective blitzing and good defensive line play.

The Duke defense played a much better game in week two than they did in week one. After allowing Virginia a successful first half on the ground, the Devils tightened up the ship at halftime and really clamped down the running game. The Duke defenses' biggest problem this season has been field position. They have spent much of the 2007 season in the shadow of their own goalpost. The defensive line and MLB Mike Tauiliili will be critical this week. Because of Northwestern's spread formations, Duke will often be required to defend the run with only 6 players in the tackle box. The good news is that Duke has talent along the defensive line and can do so. The linebackers must make the right reads and be sure tacklers. If Duke can slow down the running of Sutton and Roberson, the Wildcat offense will sputter.

Advantage: Northwestern

Key Matchup: Duke offensive line vs. Northwestern front four

This will be the key match-up every week henceforth until the Blue Devil offensive line can string together 4 good quarters of football. Any team's offensive success starts up front. Duke has had unacceptable line play so far in 2007. Considering the lineup has been relatively intact for over a year now, the struggles are inexcusable. The good news for Duke is they will be facing a relatively soft Northwestern defensive front. The Wildcats are nowhere near as talented up front as what Duke saw last week against Virginia. They must execute, otherwise Duke will once again fail to score enough points to win.

Three Keys to a Duke victory:

1. Tackle! Tackle! Tackle! – When defending spread offenses, one-on-one tackling is critical. The initial tackler must be able to make the tackle as he often will not have much help with immediate defensive pursuit. Tacking on the perimeter will likely dictate how many points Northwestern will score. If Duke tackles well, the Wildcats will not score a ton of points. If Duke does not tackle well, the Wildcats will score plenty.

2. Win special teams – Northwestern has few issues with its kicking game. The Wildcats have a dependable placekicker in Amado Villereal and Stefan Damos has three touchbacks on kickoffs already this season. The coverage units have also been solid. Duke, on the other hand, missed three field goals and gave up a long punt return in the Virginia game. Couple that with terrible punting in game one, the Devils have been routed in this phase of the game so far in 2007, even though they have blocked a punt and have scored 9 points on special teams this year. Duke must find a way to even these odds. Another return touchdown or a blocked kick coupled with made field goals and no long returns will do wonders for the Blue Devils' chance this weekend.

3. Consistency – Duke has played very well in stretches this season. The opening drive against Connecticut was perfectly executed and the Devils scored easily. Unfortunately, everything since has lacked consistency. The Devils always seem to have at least one breakdown on every play which causes the play to not work. The Devils must gain a measure of consistency both on offense and defense if they are to break in to the win column this week.

Final Analysis:

This is probably Duke's last "best shot" at a victory this season. The Wildcats can score points, but have a soft defense that Duke should be able to exploit. Unfortunately, Duke has not been able to exploit anything on either side of the ball so far in 2007. This game comes down to three things. One, can the Duke offensive line at least battle the Northwestern front to a stalemate. Two, can the Duke defense make the Wildcats earn every point and not give up easy scores with shoddy tackling and/or blown coverages. Three, can Duke execute on special teams. If the Devils are to break their losing streak, they must do all of the above. The margin of error is too small for Duke to fail in any of these areas and expect to win. Duke will fight tooth and nail with Northwestern. The offensive line will play their best game of the season and Duke will finally score more than 14 points. Unfortunately for the Devils they will make too many mistakes in coverage and will not get the job done on special teams.

Final Score:

Northwestern - 31
Duke - 21

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