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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 3: Duke

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A once-dead program has been awoken in the past few years thanks to the brilliant coaching of David Cutcliffe.

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

With our Summer Guide now complete, you probably have a general sense of Northwestern's outlook for the coming season. But breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important.

Come game week, we will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent, but in the interim, we present to you our Know Your Opponent series. It's our look ahead at all 12 teams on Northwestern's 2015 schedule. So by the time training camp rolls around, you'll have a fuller view of the upcoming season.

Today, we preview Duke, the third of four non-conference opponents:

The Basics

Returning Starters: Offense - 6, Defense - 6
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3 ACC)
Coach: David Cutcliffe, 8th year (40-48 at Duke)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2014 S&P+ Overall Rank: 73
2014 S&P+ Offense Rank: 59
2014 S&P+ Defense Rank: 70
2015 S&P+ Projection: 54

2014 Capsule

The 2014 campaign started off well for the Blue Devils, who were building off an ACC Coastal title in 2013. Through nine games, it looked as if David Cutcliffe's squad might be headed to another ACC Championship game; they sat at 8-1 with the lone loss coming at the hands of Miami in week five. Senior quarterback Anthony Boone was having an explosive year, and Jamison Crowder was one of the top slot receivers in the nation. The team had scored 30-plus points in six of its first nine contests. But Duke staggered at the finish, falling at home to Virginia Tech by one and getting blown out by North Carolina in back-to-back weeks before defeating Wake Forest in the final regular season game. In the Sun Bowl, Duke fell to Arizona State, 36-31.

Offensive overview

When Cutcliffe took over at Duke in 2008, he inherited an offense that in 2007 had ranked 108th (out of 119 teams) nationally in offensive S&P+. Cutcliffe, who had helped groom both Peyton and Eli Manning in college, began to install his offense though, an innovative spread attack, and from 2008-2013, the Blue Devils' offense improved every single year. Under Cutcliffe, Duke has established itself as a potent offensive team.

In 2015 though, Boone, the starting quarterback for parts of 2012 and all of 2013 and 2014, is gone, as is Crowder, who went to the Washington Redskins in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. Additionally, Duke lost All-American guard Laken Tomlinson to the Detroit Lions in the first round of the draft and multi-year starting tackle Takoby Cofield to graduation.

Boone will likely be replaced by the speedy Thomas Sirk, who ran for eight touchdowns last year but is somewhat of an unknown in the passing game. Sirk possesses good size at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, and can really run; he broke off a 50-yarder last year and averaged over five yards per rush. Duke also has a strong stable of three running backs: Shaquille Powell (618 yards, 2 TDs in 2014) and Jela Duncan (562 yards, 3 touchdowns in 2013) will both see time, with big-play threat Shaun Wilson joining them in the rotation after an impressive freshman campaign (598 yards, 5 touchdowns; 7.7 yards per carry).

On the outside, Max McCaffrey, older brother of Stanford running back Christian and son of former NFL wideout Ed, is a reliable possession receiver, and the Blue Devils should receive a big boost from the return of tight end Braxton Deaver, who missed all of last year with a torn ACL. They also return three of five starters on the offensive line. But losing their quarterback-left tackle combo could spell trouble.

Defensive overview

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles runs a 4-2-5 system, and Duke returns four starters in the secondary — a secondary that some believe is up there with the nation's best. Safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards are absolute studs.

The team struggled mightily, however, defending the run a year ago, ranking near the bottom of the FBS in important defensive rushing statistics: 123rd in adjusted line yards and 125th in opponent rushing success rate+. Duke was pushed around up front, but redshirt freshmen Edgar Cerenord (6-foot-1, 300 pounds) and Quaven Ferguson (6-foot-2, 305 pounds) should add some muscle in that area.

The linebacking corps took a big hit though when sixth-year senior linebacker Kelby Brown tore his ACL in late June. Brown was expected to provide a big boost after also missing last season after tearing his ACL in preseason. That makes Duke weak up the middle, as only one of the front six has significant starting experience.

Three players to know

Thomas Sirk, QB - As mentioned above, he has the size and he has the speed. He has been used primarily in short-yardage running packages. But even when asked to throw last year, he produced: 10 for 14 for 67 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He's a dual threat for sure, but his arm and ability to throw the long ball is still in question. Northwestern must force him to put the ball in the air.

Jeremy Cash, S - A team captain and All-ACC honoree, Cash is the anchor of the secondary and a leader of the defense as a whole. He has surpassed the century mark for tackles in each of the past two years, and is considered one of the top safeties in the nation. He is most adept in the box as a run-stopper and blitzer, but is also good in coverage. Cash had two interceptions and seven pass breakups last year.

DeVon Edwards, S - If one is good, two is better. That's Duke's thinking when it comes to outstanding safeties. Edwards plays the "rover" safety whereas Cash is a "striker," meaning Edwards has more freedom to roam the field and be around the ball; he led the team with 133 tackles last year and added an interception and nine pass breakups. He also has three career kick return touchdowns.

Behind enemy lines

Powell Latimer of the Greensboro News & Record gives his thoughts:

Best Case Scenario:

Duke's quarterback play and offensive line don't drop off nearly as much as expected while the rest of the Coastal Division struggles yet again. Duke squeaks back into the Coastal title.

Worst Case Scenario:

Duke’s offense never quite gets going, and the Blue Devils struggle to win. Duke’s multi-year run of winning seasons ends.

Bill Connelly Says...

SB Nation college football guru Bill Connelly has been maniacally churning out previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here's an excerpt from his Duke preview:

It's hard to thrive as a pass-first efficiency offense when you aren't passing efficiently. Part of Boone's regressed completion rate — it fell from 64 percent to 56 in 2014 — was due to less risky decisions -- his interception rate fell from an unacceptable 4 percent to a healthier 1.8 — but the result was fewer opportunities for players like Jamison Crowder.

So perhaps it isn't the worst time for new blood. Thomas Sirk is the likely Blue Devil starter; he saw action in nearly every game, mostly as a run threat, and in limited opportunities, he combined efficient passing with explosive (and inefficient) rushing. Three other players with similar recruiting profiles and less experience await a shot. Cutcliffe has long held a "quarterback whisperer" reputation, and it appears that, in Sirk and these other youngsters, he's got good templates to work with.

Interestingly enough, Connelly also lists Northwestern as Duke's most important game, saying if the Blue Devils lose, bowl eligibility may be in danger.

Final thoughts

The Blue Devils overachieved last year. That much is clear. They also lose significant pieces on offense. But with that being said, this should be a solid team once again, and David Cutcliffe almost always has his troops ready to play. Wallace-Wade Stadium is far from the most difficult place to play, but this is certainly an early road test for Northwestern.

A lot depends on how good Sirk is. He definitely has the wheels and he has been good in limited action throwing the ball, but can he pick apart a defense when he's counted on to play every down? Northwestern should be able to run the ball with some success against the Blue Devils, but this is one of those 50-50 games that we'll see plenty more of during conference play.

The Game

Date: Sept. 19
Time: 11:30 a.m. CT
Home/Away: Away
TV: ESPN3
Betting Line: Duke -4