Every Thursday during football season, we'll be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites or opponent beat writers to give readers another perspective on Saturday's upcoming game.
This week, Northwestern is in Durham to take on the Duke Blue Devils (11:30 a.m. CT, ESPN3). Duke beat writer Steve Wiseman of The Herald-Sun answers our questions about the matchup.
Inside NU: Thomas Sirk is in at quarterback this year, replacing the graduated Anthony Boone. Sirk is a true dual-threat who leads the Blue Devils in yards both through the air and on the ground, and at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he has good size for a quarterback. What makes Sirk such an effective runner, and what are his greatest strengths when he airs it out?
More on Duke
More on Duke
Steve Wiseman: Sirk has a strong arm, something he rarely showed last year while playing in short-yardage situations. He showed nice touch on a 30-yard TD pass last week but hasn't been sharp on mid-range routes yet. Cutcliffe has full faith he'll be fine this season. As a runner, he's excellent in the read-option and has plenty of experience there from his playing time last season. He's off to a good start.
INU: There was some beef this week between Northwestern defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo and Duke running back Shaun Wilson. Wilson is just part of what seems to be a pretty solid stable of running backs in Durham. Who should we expect to see in the backfield this Saturday, and what is the running style of each?
SW: Duke's running game has become a strength of the team as the program has improved over the last few years. Cutcliffe rotates backs in and out to keep fresh players in the game. This season, injuries have kept redshirt junior Jela Duncan and redshirt sophomore Joe Ajeigbe on the sidelines. But Duke is fine with senior Shaquille Powell, a power runner, and Wilson, a sophomore with breakaway speed. Neither has been stopped for negative yardage on a rushing attempt this season, although the opposition hasn't been as talented as Northwestern. Duke averaged a healthy 4.8 yards per carry last season and is equipped to match that this season.
INU: Duke had to replace one of the ACC's most productive wide receivers ever in Jamison Crowder. Isaac Blakeney, last year's second-leading wide receiver, is also gone. Who is replacing these guys, and what to they bring to the table?
SW: This continues to be an area of concern as Duke's schedule ramps up over the next few weeks. Junior Johnell Barnes and freshman TJ Rahming are deep-ball threats. Max McCaffrey is a solid player with reliable hands who is an excellent route-runner. Barnes and Rahming have to prove they are reliable, both in catching passes and getting open. Over the first two games, Duke has yet to get tight end Braxton Deaver involved in the passing game. He's a potential NFL player and I would expect him to be targeted more.
INU: Duke's secondary is one of the standout units certainly on the team and perhaps in the country, led by All-American Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards. What makes this unit so good?
SW: Athleticism and toughness. Cash started his career at Ohio State and would have been drafted had he left Duke following last season. He's effective against the run and pass. Edwards is an explosive player who also has NFL potential. Of the five defensive backs, four started last season and three are in their third seasons as starters. They are experienced and talented. Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles turns Cash and Edwards loose on blitzes often. He can do that because the rest of the secondary is effective in man coverage.
INU: What aspect of this matchup should Duke be worried about most? What does Duke do especially well that should have Northwestern fans worried?
More on Northwestern
More on Northwestern
SW: Sirk hasn't been pressured much in the pocket over the first two games because Duke was so much better than Tulane and N.C. Central. He's big and tough but we've yet to see how he does when under pressure in the pocket. Duke can't afford for him to put the ball in danger. This will be the first time left tackle Gabe Brandner, a new starter this season, faces a Power Five-level pass rush.
Defensively, Duke uses a variety of fronts and blitzes to confuse opposing offenses. The Blue Devils have been a shut-down unit on third downs and have stuffed the run. Because the defense is an experienced group, it plays smart and rarely makes mistakes.
INU: Wallace Wade Stadium got a makeover this offseason. What changes were made, and can we expect for Duke to have a raucous (or at least improved) home environment?
SW: The refurbished stadium has injected life into the fan base. The first game was a sell out and the students were engaged. Neither has always been the case here. A new student tailgate area sponsored by the university helped. The seats are now closer to the field since the track has been removed. Wallace Wade is no where close to approaching Cameron Indoor during men's basketball games, but it's getting better. Still far from an intimidating atmosphere though.
INU: What's your prediction for Saturday's game?
SW: I expect a relatively low-scoring game because both defenses play soundly. Duke's special teams are the x-factor here. Edwards is one of the nation's top kick returners. Ross Martin is a weapon at kicker. That could put Duke over the top in a 23-20 game.