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 in general.
A trip to Durham, NC, awaits Northwestern in Week Two. The Wildcats need to take care of business in this game, but will be without Duke killer Solomon Vault.
Returning Starters: 14 (seven offensive, seven defensive)
Returning Experience: 67%
2016 Record: 4-8 (1-7 ACC)
Coach: David Cutcliffe (10th year)
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.
2016 S&P+ Overall: 72nd
2016 S&P+ Offense: 77th
2016 S&P+ Defense: 48th
Duke wasn’t a terrible football team last season. That didn’t stop a tough schedule from making it look like one.
After opening the season with a blowout win against NC Central, Duke fell to Wake Forest and helped Northwestern get its season turned around with a 24-13 loss in Evanston. The Blue Devils pulled off what seemed like an impressive win against Notre Dame at the time (the Irish actually went 4-8 too), but then lost 6 of 8 down the stretch, finishing 1-7 in ACC play. Duke played some good teams close, losing to Louisville (12th in S&P+) by 10 and Virginia Tech (17th) by 3, and even beat North Carolina (21st). Still, the schedule — and a season-ending injury to starting QB Thomas Sirk in August — was too much to overcome. As a result, Duke missed the postseason for the first time in five years.
With Sirk’s Achilles injury hitting the Blue Devils a week before the season started, redshirt freshman Daniel Jones had very little time to prepare for his new role. Given that fact, he was actually pretty darn impressive. Jones’ freshman numbers look a lot like Clayton Thorson’s sophomore numbers, and he only figures to be better in year two. Making things easier for Jones is the return of senior running back Shaun Wilson. Oh, and he gets back three of last year’s top four receivers in T.J. Rahming, Chris Taylor and Johnathan Lloyd.
Although that all looks good on paper, this isn’t an offense that will strike fear into Mike Hankwitz’s heart. Two long-time starters on an already average offensive line are gone, and much of Jones’ success was the result of a conservative passing game that struggled later in games. Duke finished 92nd in ISOPPP+, an advanced stat that measures explosiveness, in 2016, and with the same core offensive pieces and coaches, there’s little reason to believe that will change much. Wilson is a solid lead back, and Jones provides a little in the run game, but this will likely be a pass-happy offense in 2017. Northwestern’s secondary will be tested on short to intermediate routes, but it will likely be a test they can handle.
Duke allowed over 28 points per game last season, but a big factor of that was facing some deadly offenses. The Blue Devils actually had a top-50 defense in S&P+, led by a solid run defense. However, they allowed far too many big plays in the passing game (this one wasn’t great) and racked up a ton of injuries as the season went along. The defense wore down, and it resulted in a brutal 106 points allowed in the year’s final two games, road losses to Pitt and Miami.
In 2017, Duke loses a few key players in the secondary. Outside of a strong LB corps led by Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris, this will be a young and unproven defense. This game likely won’t produce Justin Jackson’s biggest line of the season, but Thorson could put up numbers throwing the ball down the field.
Players to Know
QB Daniel Jones
I’ve already discussed Jones a bit, but he’s absolutely the No. 1 guy to watch for Duke in this game and all season long. If he takes a big leap, this could turn into a strong passing offense.
WR TJ Rahming
Rahming was a possession machine last season, snagging 70 balls for 742 yards, both team-highs. Jones looks his way often; if the two can start to connect further down the field occasionally (10.6 yards/catch in 2016), watch out.
LB Ben Humphreys
Humphreys, a former four-star recruit, filled up the stat sheet a year ago. 107 tackles, 12 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and a pick are elite numbers for an inside linebacker. Keep an eye on Humphreys, now a junior, when Jackson gets the ball.