With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
We move on to the Duke Blue Devils, which continues its annual non-conference series against Northwestern. This time around, the game will be in Evanston.
Returning Starters: 10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
(Only 9 if QB Thomas Sirk cannot recover in time from a February Achilles injury)
Returning Experience: 76%
2015 Record: 8-5 (4-4 ACC)
Coach: David Cutcliffe, 9th year (48-53)
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.
2015 S&P+ Overall: 75th
2015 S&P+ Offense: 92nd
2015 S&P+ Defense: 81st
Duke continued its streak of newfound consistency in 2015 despite a poor end of conference play and issues on both sides of the ball. Duke started the season well and was 6-1 on October 24th (that one loss was to Northwestern). However, Cutcliffe’s squad lost its next four games, starting with a loss to Miami that famously ended on an absurd lateral play that should have been blown dead. Despite the losing streak, Duke still made the Pinstripe Bowl and won a wild (and controversial) 44-41 game against Indiana.
As seen in Duke’s performance against Northwestern, Duke’s high-tempo offense was very inefficient. The Northwestern game typified Duke’s entire season; the Blue Devils threw a ton of ineffective passes, Sirk and the running game performed decently and the defense wore out from having to stay on the field for so long. Scottie Montgomery, Duke’s offensive coordinator, left to take the ECU job, forcing former graduate assistant Zac Roper to quickly learn the ropes (buries head in hands) before the 2016 season.
The big question will be whether Roper continues Duke’s longstanding up-tempo passing game or switches to a more balanced scheme in 2016. In the Pinstripe Bowl, Duke showed great promise running the football, even as their passing game stalled completely. Duke will be losing starting running back Shaq Powell, but he wasn’t particularly great anyway. Shaun Wilson had more carries last season, but the real player to be afraid of is Jela Duncan, a powerful back who averaged 6.9 yards per carry in a backup role in 2015.
A switch to the running game will also be more logical given Duke’s lack of returning talent at wide receiver. Two of its three most targeted receivers are gone as is tight end Braxton Deaver (No. 5 in targets). Duke’s collection of new wide receivers and running backs is as wide and depressing as Northwestern’s, so it would make sense for Duke to stick with running the football in 2016.
However, any offensive reinvention will hinge on the health of last year’s starting quarterback Thomas Sirk, who suffered a tear in his Achilles tendon in February and whose status for the first part of the season is still unknown. With the Northwestern game coming early in the season, there is a decent chance Parker Boehme will be the starter. His true skills have yet to be determined after one career start, and if Sirk does return, the question may be moot anyway. Both passers have had accuracy issues and are threats to break out of the pocket and run.
I would not be surprised if Duke took what worked well at the tail end of last season and became a more balanced offense that also integrates more big plays when possible. Boehme had a higher average yards per attempt than Sirk (small sample size, I know) and Roper might want to break out of Montgomery’s focus on the short passing game. Or maybe things could stay exactly the same.
Duke’s defense was the main reason for the team’s second half collapse last season, as it just couldn’t hold up against the upper tier of the ACC and looked exhausted against Indiana. For example, Duke gave up 21 points to Wake Forest in its final regular season game. This is the same Wake Forest team that defeated Boston College 3-0 earlier in the year and averaged 10.8 points in conference play before scoring 21 on Duke. The defense will be hoping for significant improvements in 2016.
Luckily, Duke is returning a few veteran starters on defense and has a deep group of freshmen and sophomores who could emerge. While the defensive line is losing three of its four starters, Mike Ramsay, Brandon Boyce, and Quaven Ferguson received lots of playing time last year and have been groomed to step in and contribute immediately. The defensive line will also retain senior A.J. Wolf, the leading tackler on the defensive line last season and a very solid player in the run game. The main problem is that none of these guys have proven to be very good pass rushers, which has stifled any hope of Duke reaching defensive respectability.
Duke will not have linebacker Dwayne Norman, but again it has enough replacements to ensure that the position is not a complete negative. However, there are no outstanding pass rushers or linebackers that can really hurt Northwestern’s offensive line. Northwestern may have trouble against Duke’s run defense, but Duke’s lack of a pass rush balances that out.
Duke will lose versatile safety Jeremy Cash, but the rest of the secondary remains from last year. While this is good from a coaching standpoint, Duke’s secondary was also pretty bad and really dropped off in the second half. North Carolina absolutely demolished Duke through the air and Nate Sudfeld pulled off a similar feat in the Pinstripe Bowl. Duke also gave up 338 passing yards to Wake Forest. You get the picture. The secondary is not going to be very good especially with Cash gone, but Northwestern doesn’t really have the tools to exploit Duke’s weakness.
Special Teams overview
Duke has lost longtime kicker Ross Martin and its punter Will Monday. You’ll remember Will Monday from arguably being Duke’s MVP against Northwestern. Ross Martin made 89 percent of his field goals in college, including his final collegiate kick that sealed Duke’s overtime Pinstripe Bowl victory. He has signed with the New York Jets. Will Monday has a shot at being the next punter for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The kicking game was one of Duke’s major advantages last year and it is now completely up in the air. The new special teams unit will definitely be something to watch in 2016.
Three players to know
RB Jela Duncan - Duncan averaged 6.9 yards per carry last year on 69 attempts. He was also the highest-ranked recruit of Duke’s available running backs and should have an increased role in 2016. Can he be the explosive runner that Duke has been waiting for? We’ll see. If he isn’t, the speed of Walker and Co. will limit Duke’s running backs for the second consecutive year.
LB Ben Humphreys - Humphreys was a four-star recruit who played in all 13 games last year as a true freshman. Getting consistent playing time as a true freshman is already impressive, even at Duke, and Humphreys will have a chance to build his resume in 2016. Could he finally give Duke a proper pass rush in 2016? Look out for the matchup between him and Northwestern’s offensive line.
QB Parker Boehme - Boehme is the true wild-card for this matchup and the uncertainty surrounding him makes forecasting very difficult. He was not good against Pitt and has had little to no in-game experience with Sirk playing in front of him. We shall see if Sirk is ready to take first-team reps in camp, but if he isn’t, we will be seeing a lot of Mr. Boehme. We don’t really know what to expect.
Behind Enemy Lines:
Steven Wiseman of the Durham Herald-Sun takes our questions
Duke's Best-case Scenario:
Quarterback Thomas Sirk, effective as a runner and a passer last season, becomes more effective in the deep passing game. Duke's offensive line stabilizes as young players step into important roles and the running game is consistent. On defense, young linemen prove up to handing increased playing time. Veteran cornerback DeVon Edwards and Breon Borders anchor a solid unit and the Blue Devils go 8-4 in regular season.
Duke's Worst-case Scenario:
Duke's offensive line continues, through inexperience and injury, to struggle, keeping the offense from being as effective as possible. The defense proves unable to be stout against the run following the loss of ACC defensive player of the year Jeremy Cash to the NFL. The Blue Devils struggle against a tougher schedule and miss a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
Prediction for the Duke/Northwestern game:
Northwestern once again controls the line of scrimmage against Duke to beat the Blue Devils for the second season in a row.
Duke is the most intriguing of Northwestern’s non-conference opponents, as both teams are projected to be about even by S&P and played a very close game last season. Even with roster turnover, many of the matchups appear to be at a stalemate. Northwestern’s strong defensive front will be matched by Duke’s strong offensive line. Duke’s terrible passing defense will be up against Northwestern’s terrible passing offense. Even Duke’s one rock-solid advantage from last year, the kicking game, has dissipated into uncertainty. It’s impossible to say who has the edge right now with the season so far away and sadly inevitable injuries looming, but I would lean towards Northwestern given Duke’s major question marks at quarterback and at wide receiver. Yes, Northwestern also has those questions in spades, but it also has an advantage on defense and home field.
Date: Sep. 17
Time: 7:00 p.m. CT
Betting line: Not yet available