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Duke vs. Northwestern: What to Watch For

Credit:Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

When:  Saturday, September 17, 2016.  8:00 PM.

Where:  Ryan Field, Evanston, Illinois

Television: Big Ten Network

Line:  Duke +6.5

Last Time:  Duke 10, No. 23 Northwestern 19.  In last season’s matchup in Wallace Wade the Wildcats forced 3 Duke turnovers and held the Blue Devils to just 150 passing yards.  Duke managed very little on offense, never being able to stretch the field and only going 3-17 on third down.  The defense did the best they could.  DeVon Edwards and Alonzo Saxton each intercepted a pass and the defense held Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson to just 70 passing yards.  In a tight defensive struggle it was a few big plays that made the game for Northwestern.  Solomon Vault took the opening kick of the second half 98 yards for a touchdown.  Warren Long then took a third down handoff 55 yards for a score early in the fourth quarter.  Duke had another chance to make something happen with about 6 minutes left in the game when Ryan Smith fumbled a punt after calling for a fair catch.  It was a frustrating loss for the Blue Devils, but they would rebound with a big win over Georgia Tech on a rainy Saturday the following week.

What to Watch For:

Line of Scrimmage.  If you had to pick one area where Duke lost last week’s game to Wake Forest it would be the line of scrimmage.  The offensive line was continuously pushed around, opening little room for the running backs and allowing pressure on QB Daniel Jones all game.  Jones was sacked five times and was flushed from the pocket several other times.  Jones has plenty of talent, but even the best quarterbacks will struggle to make things happen when they have no time in the pocket.  Not only was pass blocking absent, but the Blue Devils only managed an embarrassing 37 rushing yards on 30 carries.  Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson combined for just 11 carries, and only 1 after halftime.  All in all Wake tallied 10 tackles for a loss.  With no room to run, Duke was forced to look for screen passes and dump downs into the flats to try and generate quick yardage.  The Blue Devils have the athletes on the outside to form a formidable passing attack; Anthony Nash had a career day in the loss, TJ Rahming has good speed, and Johnathan Lloyd seems to be an ideal slot receiver, but with no time in the pocket and no threat of a rushing attack Jones won’t be able to get them the ball down the field.  On the other side of the ball the Duke defense was able to pick up 4 sacks, but wore down over the course of the game.  By the end Wake had ran for 239 yards in the game.  Duke has been able to generate a lot more pressure early in the season than they have in the past, but they still have to find a way to defend the run.  Getting consistently pushed off the ball will not only wear a defense down, but makes things easy for opposing offenses.  Duke will have to make some adjustments this week and hope the lines start to gel in a hurry.

Time to Rebound.  While slightly different circumstances, Duke found themselves in a similar situation at this time last year.  The Blue Devils had just come off a frustrating loss to Northwestern in which the offense couldn’t manage much of anything.  They couldn’t move the ball and had a few turnovers in the loss.  While part of the problem was no one was really sure how good Northwestern was, there was plenty of resentment about the loss from fans, similar to what came out of last week’s defeat.  The Blue Devils welcomed the always tough Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to Wallace Wade the next week.  Playing the game in an almost constant downpour, Duke made some big plays, particularly on defense to rebound with a big win.  It’ll take a similar effort this time around.  Duke is going to have to find a way to make some plays on both sides of the ball, and at least break even on special teams, to win this game.  Northwestern has been far from impressive in their first two games, but you can bet they will be doing all they can to find a way to win Saturday.  The Blue Devils will have to do the same.

Primetime Road Game.  We all knew coming in there would probably be some growing pains this season.  While there are some quality veterans on offense and defense, overall this year’s squad is a very young team.  Duke passed their first test with a season opening win over FCS NC Central, but failed their second in the ACC opener.  Now comes the third test of the season, a road game.  Not only is this a road game, its against a Power 5 opponent and will happen under the lights in primetime.  Northwestern is coming off a very good season that saw them finish 10-3.  They haven’t gotten off to a good start in 2016, beginning the season 0-2 after losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State.  That might sound good to Duke fans, but sometimes a desperate team is the most dangerous.  The Wildcats are looking to right the ship and get their season back on track before they start conference play.  And while deflating losses can sometimes discourage a fanbase, I’m sure the Wildcat fans/students will be hyped up for a night game on national television against an academic rival.  Duke has played well on the road in recent years, but it will take an extra level of focus to overcome the inexperience and mistakes that has plagued the Blue Devils to start the season.