Every Thursday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
This week, the Wildcats travel to Durham, North Carolina for their second smart school matchup of the season and, more importantly, first road game. They'll take on a Duke Blue Devils team fresh off a 55-0 drubbing of North Carolina Central. In fact, neither defense has given up double-digit points in a game this season, although Northwestern has faced much tougher competition. This game was supposed to be an early test heading into the season, and it still is. However, for the newly-ranked No. 23 Wildcats, it'll now be a test of whether they can win a tough game on the road or not. Duke's not the best team in the ACC, but the Blue Devils are no slouches either, so here are the reasons Northwestern will or won't win Saturday.
Why Northwestern will beat Duke
1. Northwestern will have success on the ground
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The first reason is a modified version of the same reason we give every week: Justin Jackson, or in this case, Northwestern's rushing attack. As we saw last week (even though it was against Eastern Illinois), Northwestern has no shortage of potent running backs on the roster. Justin Jackson, of course, is the feature back, but Warren Long can put on a move as well and Solomon Vault has shown flashes.
NU's running backs are good, but that's only half the formula here as Duke's rush defense is really bad. In 2014, it was ranked 112th in rushing defense S&P+ and gave up 196.3 yards per game. Through two games in 2015, it has only given up a total of 79 yards, but that hasn't exactly been against top competition. NU has one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, and the running backs will see the ball early and often on Saturday. The Wildcats will run straight to victory.
2. Northwestern's secondary will neutralize half of Thomas Sirk's dual-threat
It's been well documented that through two weeks, NU's defense has been fantastic. The Wildcats are eighth in the nation in defensive S&P+ and they have yet to give up a touchdown. A lot of that has to do with the improved play of the defensive line, most notably Ifeadi Odenigbo, but the secondary has been also been great. This Saturday, it will be even more important, though as Duke's head coach, David Cutcliffe, is a quarterback whisperer who knows how to construct a passing offense.
We know Duke will have a good pass attack, and new starting quarterback Thomas Sirk has fit in very nicely through two games, but he is still inexperienced. I expect NU to throw some new and confusing looks Sirk's way as the Wildcats' veteran defensive backs will do their best to lock down Duke's receivers. Did you know that Thomas Sirk has never thrown a college interception? Now's as good a time as any for his first one.
3. Anthony Walker
Staying on the defensive side of the ball, there's been a lot of talk about Duke safety Jeremy Cash, and rightfully so, but I think NU might have the best defensive player on the field come Saturday. We knew Anthony Walker was good after last year, but through two games he's appeared to have taken "the leap." He has 17 tackles and five tackles for loss so far this season, and has been flying all over the field. Walker has been hitting running backs in the backfield and he completely blew up an attempted EIU trick play that led to a Matthew Harris interception. There just aren't enough words to describe how good Walker has been at a position that many thought would be a weak link this year. For the third-straight game, the NU defense will lead the Wildcats to victory, and at the center of it all will once again be Anthony Walker.
Why Northwestern won't beat Duke
1. Northwestern's offense will sputter
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NU is ranks 121st in offensive S&P+ so far this season. There are only 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) so 121st is not good whatsoever. It's important to note the S&P+ only takes into account games when they are close, so Northwestern's win over EIU is not taken into account as much, but the ranking of 121 is still alarming to an extent. Granted, Duke is only 91st and hasn't played anyone of merit yet, but NU's offense has not been very good, and this is the best secondary Clayton Thorson has seen yet. Ian mentioned that Thomas Sirk has yet to throw an interception in his career, and the same is true for Thorson. This will be the week that changes. NU's 2-0 start has been almost completely on the strength of the defense, which leads me to reason number two...
2. Duke's speed is too much for Northwestern
While NU's defense has been terrific thus far, the unit has not faced a team with #ACCspeed. Stanford is a team that likes to pound it. Eastern Illinois is Eastern Illinois (not really sure what their offensive attack was supposed to be). Duke will spread you out and make you play sideline-to-sideline. Here's a list of guys I think Northwestern will have trouble with because of their speed:
- Thomas Sirk: Big-bodied quarterback; can make people miss and is very good out of the read-option
- Shaun Wilson: Smaller back who is a threat to go to the house every time he touches the ball; also very good at catching the ball both out of the backfield and out wide
- There's speed all over the wide receiving unit. Ryan Smith is a track athlete who was part of Duke's second-fastest 4x100 relay in school history. Johnell Barnes and T.J. Rahming can both fly.
Nick VanHoose is a very solid corner, but the one thing he lacks is top-end speed. I worry about this. Can the NU defense keep Duke players in front of them?
3. Two words: Special teams
Take it from Steve Wiseman from our Opponent Q&A: "I expect a relatively low-scoring game because both defenses play soundly. Duke's special teams is the x-factor here. (DeVon) 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."
Northwestern dropped a close one to Minnesota last year after the Golden Gophers got a kick return touchdown; Edwards is an All-American returner and perhaps the fastest guys on the team (he was on that relay team too). The Blue Devils will not make mistakes on special teams. They will capitalize if you do.