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Northwestern-Duke preview: Three matchups to watch

Which matchups will decide Saturday's game?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Gameday is just a few days away. So with Saturday looming, it's time to start digging a little deeper into the intricacies of the contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. Let's look at the three matchups that may decide Northwestern's game against Duke:

1. Shaun Wilson and Thomas Sirk vs. Northwestern's front seven

After Northwestern's 41-0 drubbing of Eastern Illinois on Saturday, defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo — who already has 2.5 sacks on the young season — said the Wildcats "expect to have a shutout" against Duke — like they do every week. Shaun Wilson, the Blue Devils' leading rusher, decided to take exception with Odenigbo's fairly innocuous statement and the sophomore responded on Twitter, setting up an interesting and exciting matchup for this weekend's game.

Northwestern's defense has been dominant thus far in 2015, having yet to allow a touchdown. The run defense, in particular, has been stout, allowing just 155 yards (2.8-yard average) on the ground through eight quarters of play, putting them close to tops in the nation. Wilson, who has ran for 134 yards and a score so far, will have a tough task ahead of him if he wants to make Odenigbo regret being so confident.

However, Wilson isn't Duke's only rushing threat, as quarterback Thomas Sirk is actually leading the team in rushing in 2015 with 154 yards on 24 carries. Sirk, a junior, became the starter this season as he was mostly used in the running game last season, posting 238 yards on the ground as compared to 62 through the air. His passing game has developed, though, and he has yet to through an interception in his college career (he has eight touchdown passes over two seasons).

Still, the Wildcats' defensive front should be able to handle Wilson and Sirk considering just how effective key players like Odenigbo, Dean Lowry and Anthony Walker have been at breaking into the opposition's backfield. This has significantly disrupted the passing game of both Stanford and Eastern Illinois, but also shut down the respective running games, as it should against Duke.

Advantage: Northwestern's front seven

2. Justin Jackson vs. Duke's front seven

On the other hand, Northwestern has one of college football's brightest young backs in sophomore Justin Jackson, who has run for 212 yards on 50 carries in 2015 with one touchdown. Jackson had a huge game in Week 1 with 134 yards against Stanford but, in Week 2, was less effective as he rested for much of the second half in the rout. There's no doubt he's a talented back who can put up big rushing numbers in a hurry.

One problem for Jackson, though, is that the Duke rushing defense has actually been better than Northwestern's through two games this year, as the Blue Devils are fifth in the country in rushing yards per attempt. Granted, Duke has played lower-tier teams in Tulane and North Carolina Central, but giving up just 79 yards (on 50 carries) is really good. However, the Duke defense hasn't gone against a running back of Jackson's ilk since it gave up 263 yards and three touchdowns to Pittsburgh's James Conner last November.

Since the running backs of Tulane and NC Central objectively don't hold up to Jackson in any way, the likely advantage in this matchup has to go to Northwestern's back (sorry to Tulane tailback Sherman Badie and NC Central RB Dorrel McClain). With how well he has been running, coupled with a continuously improving Wildcats' offensive line, Jackson should be able to get his yards with relative ease.

Advantage: Justin Jackson

3. Ross Martin vs. Jack Mitchell

Jack Mitchell's inconsistency as a placekicker at the beginning of last season was one of the more maligned aspects of Northwestern football. However, after his historic performance in the upset of Notre Dame (he made four field goals, including the game-tying and game-winning kicks), Mitchell rounded into form and was reliable at the end of the 2014 season. That solid performance has continued into this season as well, which has been a boost for the offense.

For as good as Mitchell has been, Duke's kicker--senior Ross Martin--is much better. Martin has started all four years in Durham and has been very solid, aside from a somewhat-shaky sophomore campaign. He has also missed just one extra point in his career out of over 150 attempts. In 2014, Martin was 19-for-21 on field goal attempts, with one blemish of over 50 yards and one between 40-49 yards. He's as automatic as it gets in college kicking, which is why ranks him as the fourth-best kicker for the 2016 NFL Draft.

Martin, and Duke punter Will Monday, another senior, give the Blue Devils an edge on special teams across the board. For Northwestern, Matt Micucci has replaced Jack Mitchell on kickoff duty due to Mitchell's nagging injury, and Hunter Niswander has been a tad shaky. That gives Duke a significant advantage in the return game as well.

Advantage: Ross Martin, Duke