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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Duke

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It could be a barn burner under the lights Saturday night...

Northwestern v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

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.

Next up for Northwestern are the Duke Blue Devils of the ACC. Duke is coming off a disappointing 24-14 loss to Wake Forest and will hope to bounce back with a win. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe watched his team lose a close game at home to Northwestern last year. The Blue Devils will be out for revenge against a desperate Northwestern team.

Why Northwestern will lose to Duke

1. Northwestern’s offensive line breaks down.

After getting dominated by an FCS defensive line last weekend, the Wildcats’ offensive line will need to step up if Northwestern wants to score in this game. Northwestern, presumably, would like to score (at this point we’re not sure), but Duke managed 4 sacks against Wake Forest last week and has a more talented defensive front than Illinois State. If Northwestern fails to block pass rushers and allows Duke to control the line of scrimmage, this game will not end well for Northwestern. This point is pretty simple. Without an offensive line, an offense can’t function.

2. Northwestern’s bend-don’t-break defense finally falters.

It’s fair to say that Northwestern’s defense has regressed slightly into a bent-don’t-break defense that tightens up in the red zone while sacrificing yardage through the first two games. Illinois State and Western Michigan had multiple trips into Northwestern territory but often had to settle for field goals or turned the ball over rather than cashing in for six. This kept Northwestern in the first two contests, but if Duke manages to convert its opportunities, the offense might not be able to keep pace.

But with cornerback Matt Harris out, stopping Duke will be a very difficult task. Montre Hartage and Trae Williams showed some promise, but they are both raw prospects who have barely seen much playing time due to the depth and experience Northwestern has had over the past two seasons. T.J. Rahming and Anthony Nash are both quick and athletic receivers who can burn Northwestern’s secondary. Duke’s running game was completely ineffective last week, but that won’t necessarily prevent Daniel Jones from picking on Hartage and Williams. Illinois State’s Jake Kolbe certainly didn’t have too many problems, and Duke threw for 332 yards against a usually-solid Wake defense.

3. Northwestern badly loses the time of possession battle, again.

Northwestern has lost the time of possession battle in both weeks, and if it allows Duke to control the game and create long drives, the defense will once again be too exhausted to keep up by the end of the game. Duke was not able to do this at home against Wake Forest. While Northwestern has avoided turnovers in its first two games (except for one key fumble), the team has to remain reliable in holding onto the football as well to give the defense a break. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils are starting a virtually unknown redshirt freshman quarterback named Daniel Jones, who threw for over 300 yards but only averaged 6.9 yards per attempt (still far better than Northwestern though). If Northwestern’s defense allows Duke to control the game and fails to get Duke off the field on third and fourth down, the Wildcats will be in the exact same situation as the last two weeks. This time, the cards could play out differently and Northwestern could escape with a win, but what this team really needs is a strong performance that doesn’t require any dramatic late-game dramatics.

Why Northwestern will beat Duke

1. Duke’s offensive line breaks down.

Duke averaged 1.2 yards per carry against Wake Forest last week.

Wow. Northwestern actually out-performed Duke in one aspect of the game last week. 1.2 yards per carry is absolutely abysmal. Jela Duncan couldn’t get anything going behind a bad offensive line performance and Duke abandoned the run to let its freshman quarterback throw 48 times. This sounds eerily similar to Northwestern’s performance last week. The passing offense had some nice outward statistics, but it was once again horrifically inefficient against an unspectacular Wake Forest team. Duke QB Thomas Sirk did not set the world on fire last year, but redshirt freshman Daniel Jones has not proven himself to be a fully functional replace as of yet—Sirk is out for the year with an Achilles injury. He fumbled twice in the backfield last week, partly due to awful line play and partly due to inexperience. He also got picked off once.

So, as bad as Northwestern’s offensive line was last week, it might have been better than Duke’s.

Of course, football performance is volatile, and Jones could theoretically shred Northwestern’s secondary this week. However, it is hard to expect Jones to light it up in his second game against FBS compeition. Jones definitely has speed and can throw the ball downfield, but without any running game whatsoever and an offensive line that looked almost as bad as Northwestern’s last week, Duke could have serious issues moving the ball. Northwestern could also have serious issues moving the ball. This is going to be so much fun! Who’s ready for #D00N? Is it #N00D? I think #N00D sounds like an apt successor to #M00N.

2. Everyone performs up to their potential.

This may seem like a lame point to bring up, but it certainly applies for this 0-2 Northwestern squad. Northwestern must play up to its potential on both sides of the ball. The last two games have seen all aspects of the team regress for long stretches, except for maybe the punting unit (#NiswanderForRayGuy). This is a team that went 10-2 last year and has shown it can play decent football. It has some talent, contrary to what you may have witnessed last week. If Northwestern can play at least as well as it did against Western Michigan, it will have a good shot to beat a shaky Duke team. From Anthony Walker to Jack Mitchell and even the coaching staff, everyone has to just BE BETTER!

Also, Duke’s defense allowed 24 points at home to Wake Forest last year. Wake Forest finished 107th in offensive S&P last season. Northwestern finished 111th. By this math, Northwestern can score 21 points against Duke on a good day. Haha, that would take a miracle. But it would also take a miracle for Duke’s offense to score 21 on Northwestern. Are we doomed for #D00N?

3. Northwestern gets some help on special teams.

Duke has lost its punter, the legendary Will Monday and kicker Ross Martin over the offseason. Consequently, Duke missed two field goals last week. Take that, Jack Mitchell, you only missed one! Hunter Niswander is now definitely the best specialist on the field, which has never happened against an FBS school and should be an advantage for the Wildcats.

Solomon Vault also memorably broke off a kickoff return touchdown that spurred Northwestern to victory at Duke last year. Perhaps lightning could strike twice and give Northwestern a big play.