Northwestern on Offense:
The emphasis will be on stopping the ground attack led by 2008 Doak Walker and Maxwell Award candidate Tyrell Sutton. Sutton, a 5'9, 180lbs senior out of Akron, Ohio, is closing in on the Wildcat career marks for career rushing yards and career all-purpose yards. In three years he's recorded 3,140 yards on the ground and 4,128 all-purpose yards.
A shifty back with very good speed, Sutton can also make defenses pay as a receiver out of the backfield where he's one of the best, if not the best, in the country. For his career he leads all active running backs in yards per game - averaging 30.6.
In week one Sutton continued his assault on the record books while also giving the Blue Devils a preview of what they can expect on Saturday. Against Syracuse the senior rushed 21 times for 152 yards in addition to hauling in four receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown.
The running game isn't the only area of concern for the Blue Devils' defensive unit either. The Wildcats' passing attack is also on a different level compared to week one's opponent thanks to the experience of senior C.J. Bachér - one of 26 players on the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award Watch List. Against Duke on Saturday Bacher will be making his 19 consecutive start and he'll be coming off a very solid opening outing that saw him complete 23-of-35 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns.
In 2007 Bacher averaged more than 300 yards per game (304.7 to be precise) - sixth best in the country. With a strong arm and good mobility, the 6-foot-2, 205lbs senior will certainly be a handful for the Blue Devils' defense. But he's only half of what was the Big 10's top passing unit a season ago. The other half comes in the form of very good receivers - 3/4's of whom return in 2008 - including 2007 team MVP Eric Peterman, Ross Lane, and Rasheed Ward who have combined for a 286 career reception. Throw in Sutton's 118 career catches and it's easy to see why the Blue Devil defense will have to bring their "A" game on Saturday in Wallace Wade.
For all their brilliance at the skill positions, there are big questions in Evanston surrounding the performance of the offensive line - which had three open spots heading into preseason camp due to graduation. In the opener the Wildcats were missing returning starting right tackle Kurt Mattes who was nursing a sprained knee. However the 6-foot-6, 305lbs fourth year junior appears to be slotted into the starting lineup for the game against Duke, which will take some pressure off the new comers. Even without Mattes the Wildcats' offensive line weathered the storm against Syracuse and gave Sutton and Bacher enough time to roll up more than 400 yards of total offense against the Orange.
In place of Mattes a week ago the Wildcats started junior Desmond Taylor who will likely slide to right guard this week. Beside Taylor at the center position will be redshirt freshman Ben Burkett (6'4, 285) while the left side of the line is just as inexperienced with the left tackle position being manned by redshirt freshman Al Netter. The left guard position will be held by senior Keegan Kennedy.
Northwestern on Defense:
The Blue Devils' offense became extremely vanilla in terms of play-calling after the outcome against James Madison was no longer in doubt. This week, however, look for the full playbook to be opened up as Duke looks to make it two straight victories over the Wildcats.
Just as Mattes adds depth and experience to the Wildcats' offensive line, Northwestern's defensive line gets a shot in the arm this week with the return of senior defensive tackle John Gill who was suspended for the team opener due to a violation of team rules. Gill, who has been named to the Outland and Bronko Nagurski Award watch lists, was an honorable mention All-Big 10 performer in 2007 after racking up 50 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. His return gives the Wildcats' D-line a combined 105 career starts. Joining Gill in the middle of the line will be junior Adam Hahn (6'4, 295) who was named as an ESPN All-District First team selection this fall. The ends will be junior Corey Wootton (6'7, 270) - named 4th team all-conference by Phil Steele's preseason magazine - and Kevin senior Mims (6'3, 265) who recorded a career best 10 tackles against Duke a season ago.
The linebacking group is headed by senior Malcolm Arrington who is coming off a career high 10 tackles against Syracuse in week one putting him well on his way of eclipsing last year's total of just 47 tackles. Arrington is goined by senior Prince Kwateng and sophomore Quentin Davie. Duke recruiting buffs may remember that Davie was, at one time, committed to the Blue Devils before changing his mind and heading to Northwestern in December of 2005.
The secondary will start three juniors and one sophomore with corners Justan Vaughn and Sherrick McManis joining safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith. Smith was responsible for the Wildcats turning a precarious 16-10 lead into the 30-10 result a week ago when he recorded his sixth career interception and then took the ball into the endzone to make it 23-10 - effectively ending the drama. Combined the unit managed to record 18 tackles, two pass breakups, a tackle for loss, and an interception in week one.
Bottom Line: A season ago the Blue Devils didn't have to deal with Sutton (who was nursing an injury) and Duke adopted a strategy of bend, but don't break as Bacher racked up 368 yards passing while completing 30-of-50 pass attempts. However, when they got to the redzone, the Wildcats put points on the board just twice in five attempts including the final series in which Bacher couldn't find his receiver as Ayanga Okpokowuruk just missed a game ending sack.
It's unlikely that Northwestern will be overlooking the Blue Devils in 2008. In fact it's a safe bet that the coaches and players have circled this game ever since the schedule was announced. What Northwestern will find in Durham is a team that hardly resembles the bunch they hosted a season ago. This year's Duke team is much more crisp and much improved all around thanks to the hiring of Coach David Cutcliffe.
Both teams looked sharp in the opening week, though neither opponent was of the caliber of this week's matchup. If Duke is going to start the season 2-0 it's going to take a big effort from the defensive unit from the line to the safeties. It's unlikely the Blue Devils will see an offense that's this dynamic until they face ACC favorite Clemson later in the season. The key will be to exploit an inexperienced offensive line and close the potential holes for Sutton quickly. In the passing game there must be pressure put on Bacher. If he's allowed to sit in the pocket and pick apart the defense, there will be a lot of 7-8 yard gains that will culminate in long drives and a very tired Duke defense.
Against James Madison the Blue Devils controlled the clock and the tempo of the game. It's vital that they do the same on Saturday. Northwestern will give Duke opportunities to do just that with their ability to strike quickly. Offensively the Blue Devils and Thaddeus Lewis will need to pick their spots and methodically execute as they did a week ago. The offensive line must continue to improve and give Lewis enough time make his reads. A season ago they did just that and Lewis responded by throwing for nearly 250 yards and three scores.
Defensively Duke simply cannot get into a run and chase game with the Wildcat skill players. The Blue Devils will have the advantage in the trenches and if they can exploit the Wildcats' inexperienced line, it will help contain Sutton and Bacher.
Another factor may very well be the field conditions. Tropical Storm Hannah is expected to dump several inches of rain on Wallace Wade late Friday night and into Saturday morning. While the precipitation will most likely be gone by kick-off, the field will still be less than ideal. The rain seemed to bother the Blue Devils a bit a week ago - especially in the passing game and it's likely that footing will be even worse this week.
This is not the same Northwestern team that fell to the Blue Devils in 2007. For starters they'll have their best offensive player back and fully healthy in Sutton. Secondly the idea of revenge will certainly be on the Wildcats' mind after being the only team Duke beat last season. Of course this isn't the same Duke program either. Cutcliffe's off-season changes have already paid dividends and he'll be looking for more as Duke continues to move forward. Look for the Wildcats to come out early and attempt to establish the tone. Duke will head into halftime down, but will rally in the third quarter.
Duke - 27
Northwestern - 24