Although the start of 2016 for Northwestern can unquestionably be considered a disaster, the rest of the season isn’t getting cancelled. There are still 10 more games to be played. The Wildcats have already dropped what were supposed to be two of their easier games this year, but even with the team playing as poorly as it is right now, there are still several beatable opponents left on the schedule.
One of those teams is Duke, Northwestern’s Week Three opponent for a second consecutive year. The Wildcats took care of the Blue Devils in Durham last season and get David Cutcliffe’s squad at home on Saturday, although Ryan Field hasn’t exactly been a safe haven through two games. What makes this game winnable is that, like Northwestern, Duke has taken a big step back this season, partly due to the season-ending injury senior QB Thomas Sirk sustained in August. Last Saturday, the Blue Devils suffered a 10-point home loss to lowly Wake Forest (3-9, 1-7 ACC in 2015).
If Northwestern wants to have any shot at salvaging its season and reaching bowl eligibility, this is a must-win game. Here’s what we know about Duke.
1. Its offensive line is struggling, too!
Much has been made of the putrid play of Northwestern’s offensive line in 2016, but Duke’s hasn’t been much better. The Blue Devils lost two all-ACC linemen to graduation last season and are still trying to adjust to life with a new center and left guard. The chemistry isn’t quite there yet, and it showed in a downright awful performance against Wake Forest. Duke’s offensive line allowed five sacks (to a team that had just 20 in all of 2015) and was even worse in the running game. The Blue Devils ran the ball 30 times for all of 37 yards, good for a whopping 1.2 yards per carry. On paper, this should be a good opportunity for Northwestern’s recently-shuffled front four to have a bounce-back game and generate solid interior pressure. It’s also a good opportunity for Anthony Walker Jr. (14 tackles through 2 games) to potentially return to All-American form.
2. Daniel Jones has shown potential at QB
Sirk was one of the better dual-threat quarterbacks in the country last season, throwing for over 2,600 yards and also leading Duke with 800 yards on the ground, so his loss was a big one. However, redshirt freshman Daniel Jones has looked solid thus far as his replacement. Jones has prototypical size (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) and displayed enough accuracy and poise in fall camp to beat out veteran Parker Boehme for the starting job. Jones didn’t have to do much in the opener against FCS North Carolina Central, completing 10-of-15 throws for 189 yards and two scores as Duke cruised to a blowout victory. Against Wake Forest, he went 31 for 48 for 332 yards with one pick and no scores, a solid performance considering how much pressure his offensive line was allowing. With Matthew Harris out at least a week, NU is down to Montre Hartage and Trae Williams as its starting corners, and Jones should be a decent test for the entire Wildcat secondary in this one.
3. Run defense is suspect at best
The last time these two teams met, Northwestern racked up 201 yards on the ground (120 from Justin Jackson and 55 on this play). The Blue Devils actually finished in the top 50 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game last year but lost several starters in the front seven, including leading tackler Dwayne Norman, and appear to have taken a step back in 2016. Wake Forest ran 49 rushing plays to just 16 passes last Saturday, accumulating 239 yards and 3 touchdowns on almost 5 yards per carry. Duke knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop it. One week after Clayton Thorson threw 41 passes, Northwestern may want to follow Wake’s formula and utilize Jackson and the run game early and often this week.