In two weeks, Northwestern has upset Stanford, and then avoided any sort of letdown by blowing Eastern Illinois out of the water. The coaches have been impressed, as have the AP pollsters, as the Wildcats are now ranked in both major polls, and talk of where Northwestern stands in the Big Ten West is heating up.
Week 3 brings the Wildcats to the east coast, where they will meet the Duke Blue Devils in Durham, North Carolina. Duke received one Top 25 vote this week in the AP Poll, and certainly poses a threat to Northwestern's unblemished record. In fact, the Blue Devils are 3-point favorites, and are ranked ahead of NU in Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings after two weeks.
Here are three things to know about the Wildcats' Week 3 opponents:
1. David Cutcliffe is a borderline miracle-worker, and an offensive mastermind
Wherever Duke head coach David Cutcliffe goes, it seems, he has success. In his first head coaching gig at Ole Miss, from the final game of 1998 to 2004, he amassed a 44-29 record and went to five bowl games (winning four, including the Cotton Bowl). He was fired after his only losing season at the school.
Week 3 prep
Week 3 prep
He later went to Duke, which was, at the time, considered one of the worst major conference jobs in college football. His predecessor, Ted Roof, had gone 6-45 (3-33 ACC), the program had produced just three winning seasons in the past 25 years, and it hadn't beaten an ACC opponent in three seasons.
It took four seasons, but in 2012, Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to a 6-6 regular season record and their first bowl game since 1994. In 2013, he led the school to a 10-win season — the first in school history — and the ACC Championship game. He followed that up with a nine-win season in 2014.
Cutcliffe is also an offensive mastermind and a so-called quarterback whisperer. He's coached six quarterbacks to the NFL, including both of the Manning brothers (Peyton while he was an offensive coordinator at Tennessee), and the Blue Devils have been in the top half of FBS offensive scoring numbers for each of the past three years.
2. Quarterback Thomas Sirk can hurt defenses with his legs
Although the competition has been anything but challenging thus far, there's no denying the dual-threat ability of Thomas Sirk. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Sirk leads the Blue Devils in both passing yards and rushing yards (24 carries, 168 yards). He's a big guy that can really move, and Northwestern will have to have a solid game plan to stop him.
Sirk also has displayed a strong arm and can throw a really pretty deep ball. He absolutely demolished North Carolina Central last week. Yes, it's NC Central, but the talent is absolutely there. He also hasn't turned over the ball yet this year, and has a 176.2 efficiency rating.
Sirk is in his first year as a starter. However, he does have significant experience. He was used last year in a red zone package, and led the team in rushing touchdowns with eight. He only threw 14 passes, but three of his 10 completions went for touchdowns through the air. Northwestern will be his first true test as a starter though.
3. Duke's offense is fast; so is its secondary
The Blue Devils have speed all over the field. Sirk is one of the better running quarterbacks in the ACC, and his backfield mate Shaun Wilson has speed to burn. In the slot, Max McCaffrey — son of former NFL wide receiver Ed, brother of Stanford's Christian — is a quick slot man. Outside, Braxton Deaver, Johnell Barnes and true freshman T.J. Rahming can all fly.
Defensively, the Blue Devils are much better in the secondary than they are up front, where questions loom. They play a 4-2-5 base defense, which allows them to get more defensive backs on the field, and allows them to confuse offenses with a diverse playbook of coverages.
They're able to play that 4-2-5 because of the talent in the secondary. Duke returns everyone from last year, including standout safeties DeVon Edwards, Deondre Singleton and All-American Jeremy Cash. Cash could be an NFL player right now if he had left early, and is a complete player. At corner, Breon Borders can make plays as well. These guys are not afraid to hit and are fantastic all-around athletes.