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Northwestern vs. Duke: Three things to know about the Blue Devils

Duke is better than Nevada, for starters.

NCAA Football: North Carolina Central at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The opening weekend of college football has come and gone, and we now have some data and film upon which to base our opinions of teams, rather than having to go off of results that are several months old. The problem, when it comes to Northwestern’s next opponent, is that it’s tough to evaluate a team when they’ve only played an FCS program that isn’t even among the top 30 FCS programs.

In Week 1, after Northwestern struggled to come out unscathed against Nevada, Duke went out and throttled nearby NC Central by a score of 60-7. A few numbers from that game:

  • It was 47-7 at halftime, which means it probably could’ve gotten a lot uglier.
  • Despite being even in time of possession, Duke won the yardage battle 524-158.
  • First downs were 30-8 in favor of the Blue Devils.

So yeah, it looks impressive on paper, but getting too high on Duke heading into this week would be like thinking the 2015-16 Northwestern basketball team was good because it beat Sacred Heart by 46. What I’m trying to say is this: Duke ain’t played nobody, Paul.

Still, when trying to predict what we’ll see from the Blue Devils this Saturday, we can make a few observations from Week 1 and also go off of what we thought coming into the season, because that hasn’t changed much. Here are three things to know about Dook Duke.

QB Daniel Jones is legit and looking to make the leap in Year 2

Northwestern fans might not remember Daniel Jones from the two teams’ meeting in Evanston a year ago, and even if they do, they won’t remember anything special. Jones, thrust into action days before the season started after Thomas Sirk went down with an Achilles injury, put up 279 yards on 48 attempts for a pedestrian 5.8 YPA, didn’t reach the end zone, and threw a pretty bad INT to Godwin Igwebuike. However, he improved quite a bit as the year went along. Although Duke went 1-7 in ACC play (4-8 overall), much of that wasn’t on Jones, who put up strong performances in losing efforts against good teams like Louisville, Georgia Tech, and Miami. And after throwing 8 interceptions in 197 attempts over the season’s first five games (he somehow threw 5 picks against a dreadful Virginia team), Jones threw just one in 233 attempts the rest of the way. He finished with nearly 3,000 yards (albeit with an ugly 6.6 YPA), 16 touchdowns, and a total QBR that placed him ahead of Clayton Thorson and just outside the top 50 in the nation. He also added 7 scores and nearly 500 yards on the ground. With three of his top four receivers from 2016 back, the redshirt sophomore has a chance to make major strides this season. It doesn’t mean much, but his 19-for-25, 213-yards and two-touchdown performance against NC Central could be a sign that he’s on his way to doing just that.

A couple of young players emerged as weapons in Week 1

Again, take this with a grain of salt, but Duke’s rushing and receiving leaders last Saturday were both guys who didn’t play against Northwestern last September. At running back, it was redshirt freshman Brittain Brown leading the way with 10 carries for 120 yards. A former high-three-star recruit, Brown took the first two carries of his collegiate career for 24 and 39 yards, with the latter going for a touchdown. Senior Shaun Wilson is still the starter and wasn’t disappointing or anything (he carried the ball 9 times for 59 yards), but Brown’s explosive performance likely means he’ll see the field a good amount on Saturday. At receiver, none of those top three returners mentioned early led the way statistically against NC Central. Instead, it was sophomore Aaron Young, with 5 catches for 89 yards and a 54-yard touchdown. Like at RB, the experienced veterans — in this case a trio of juniors in TJ Rahming, Chris Taylor, and Johnathan Lloyd — aren’t going anywhere, but Young has likely earned more snaps as well. Both of these speedy young playmakers are guys to watch for.

Duke’s special teams were bad in 2016. Really bad.

Normally, after talking about Duke’s offense twice already, I’d say something about its defense in this third section. But honestly, it’s not a very interesting defense. Jim Knowles’ unit just cracked the top 50 in S&P+ but gave up far too many explosive plays; is led by a strong linebacking corps; and will likely rely on inexperienced players on the line and in the secondary. That’s about all you have to know. There are no superstars. Now, let’s talk about something far more interesting: special teams!

From Bill C’s Duke preview:

Duke’s Special Teams S&P+ ranking the last three years:

2014: sixth

2015: second

2016: 119th

What the heck happened? The Blue Devils replaced a big-time kicker (Ross Martin) and punter (Will Monday) with freshmen. That’ll do it. AJ Reed was a dreadful 3-for-8 on field goals under 40 yards and 0-for-2 outside of 40. Austin Parker averaged a decent 40.9 yards per punt with plenty of fair catches, but the Blue Devils allowed 9.4 yards per return (89th). And only 14 percent of Parker’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

Duke really went from having the second-best special teams unit in the country to being in the bottom 10 in a single year. The kicker went 3-for-10! Interestingly, Reed was nowhere to be found last week. Parker, the punter, apparently started working on placekicking in the spring and won the job. He only took one field goal against the Eagles, and he made it — his first career attempt — from 32 yards! Parker also went a solid 7-for-8 on extra points. So...the Blue Devils have a guy who kicks and punts now? Either way, it will be interesting to see what happens if Duke has a potential 40+ yard field goal situation and a manageable fourth down distance. Given what we saw from Charlie Kuhbander and Fourth Down Fitz against Nevada, the same can be said for Northwestern, which should add an interesting element to this game.