Duke vs. No. 23 Northwestern: What to Watch For

DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders, Alonzo Saxton II / Duke Blue Devils / Photo by Chris Summerville
DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders, Alonzo Saxton II / Duke Blue Devils / Photo by Chris Summerville

When: Saturday, September 19. 12:30 PM

Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, North Carolina

Television: ACC Network or ESPN3

Line: Duke -3.5

Last time:  Duke 20, Northwestern 24.  David Cutcliffe’s first season as the head coach at Duke got off to an exciting start.  A Thad Lewis 16 yard touchdown run gave Duke the lead early in the fourth quarter, but the defense couldn’t hold.  Northwestern immediately drove down the field and took the lead for good on a short touchdown run.  With about 90 seconds left, Duke had what they thought was a game winning touchdown pass on fourth down from Thad Lewis to running back Clifford Harris.  It was not to be, however, as the play was called back for holding.  Duke’s final fourth down attempt fell incomplete, preserving the Northwestern victory.

What to Watch For:

First Real Test:  Duke has been dominant in their first two victories of the 2015 season, winning both games by a combined 85 points.  To say the least, the competition has been a bit overmatched.  Saturday will be the first real test for a Duke team that is still getting used to some new parts at key positions.  Northwestern is coming off a hot start to their season that began with a home upset of then No. 21 Stanford.  After pitching a shutout against E. Illinois last week, the Wildcats find themselves ranked at No. 23 in both polls.  One could certainly debate the merits of early season polls in college football, but looking around the country Northwestern seems to have earned their spot, thus far.  Northwestern has proven particularly tough in the trenches, stopping Stanford’s usually strong run game.  Duke has ran the ball well to start the season and has made it clear that running the football is going to be a priority this season.  Duke should have the edge here, slightly, because of their speed on the outside.  The offensive line did give up some ground up the middle in the opener against Tulane, but if Duke can design their runs off the tackles and use their speed in the read option, they should be able to counter Northwestern’s size on the defensive line.

Duke Defense:  Through two games the Blue Devils have been better than advertised on defense.  Certainly the secondary received their fair share of hype coming into the season, with Jeremy Cash, DeVon Edwards, and Breon Borders leading the way, and they have delivered as expected thus far.  But perhaps the front of the defense deserves even more praise after getting off to such a strong start to 2015.  Through the first two games, the Blue Devils are only giving up an average of 1.6 yards per carry and total of 78 yards.  The influx of youth on the defensive line and at linebacker seems to have given the front of the defense a shot in the arm.  Their speed is proving to be a real asset for the team.  Again, the quality of the competition should be noted, but even taking that into account, the defense has, essentially, been dominant.  As impressive as the Wildcats have been through their first two games on defense, the offense hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire.  Freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson is completing just 57.5% of his passes for an average of 128.5 yards per game with just one touchdown so far.  In his defense, he is still an inexperienced player.  Saturday will be just his third game as the starting QB for Northwestern.  The Blue Devil secondary will be the best he has faced so far in the young season.  And while they have yet to force a turnover, aside from one breakdown against Tulane, they have been swarming.  Breon Borders has been a lockdown corner and Alonzo Saxton is coming off one of his best games at Duke.  This without even mentioning Edwards and Cash, who seem to be in on every play, run or pass.  The Wildcats are averaging a healthy 284.5 yards per game on the ground.  Expect them to pound away at the Duke front and look to control the clock, limit turnovers, and wear down the defense.  Duke will, most likely, combat this by keeping Jeremy Cash in the box all game for additional run support.

Tough Stretch Ahead:  Saturday will mark the first of back to back home games against Top 25 opponents (potentially the first of three, depending on what happens in Chestnut Hill Friday night).  After Northwestern, Duke will host Georgia Tech next Saturday for their first ACC game of the season.  Georgia Tech has been a tough out for Duke.  Last year’s win in Atlanta was Duke’s first over the Yellow Jackets since David Cutcliffe took over the program.  Regardless of the outcome Saturday, the Blue Devils will have to immediately shift their focus to the defending Coastal Division Champs and ACC play.  Letting the excitement over the victory, or agony of defeat, carry over into next week’s preparation will have a negative effect on Duke’s quest to get back to the ACC title game.  On October 3 Duke will host Boston College.  BC has been an under the radar team the past couple seasons, but make no mistake about it, they are going to come into Wallace Wade expecting to get a victory.  If the Eagles upset Florida State this weekend, that game could become a big time ACC matchup.  For bowl and division aspirations, Duke has to stay focused and play well over the next three games.  Certainly you don’t want to value any game more than another in a season, but this stretch holds a lot of value for Duke.  Take it one game at a time and don’t get caught looking ahead.