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Northwestern vs. Duke preview: Three matchups to watch

Young playmakers on both sides of the ball could give Northwestern trouble.

Duke v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Coming off a 31-20 victory over Nevada last weekend, Northwestern heads to Durham, N.C. to take on Duke. Though the Wildcats have taken down Duke the past two seasons, a tougher test awaits for Northwestern this fall. Featuring a defense that finished in the top 50 in S&P+ and a young but promising offense, the Blue Devils are better than the Wolfpack on both sides of the ball. . Here are three key matchups to look for on Saturday:

Northwestern’s secondary vs. Duke’s wide receivers

The Sky Team has lost some of the air underneath its wings. Keith Watkins II is out for the year. Marcus McShepard is banged up, and Trae Williams is still recovering. If McShepard can’t go Saturday against Duke, Brian Bullock, Moe Almasri, and JR Pace will see a healthy dose of snaps earlier than Pat Fitzgerald and his staff would have hoped.

Aside from a couple big plays, the maligned secondary acquitted itself well enough against Nevada, particularly in the second half. But Duke will bring far more experience and talent to the field. The Blue Devils are led by sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones, who was uninspiring against Northwestern last fall. The second-year starter took his lumps early in 2016, but finished with over 2,500 yards passing and 486 yards rushing. Duke returns three of its top five pass-catchers from last season, and former high-three star Aaron Young has flashed potential, including a 54-yard touchdown catch last week. The Blue Devil passing attack was more dink-and-dunk last season, but with a more experienced group this season, expect Jones to attack the Wildcat secondary.

Northwestern’s offensive line vs. Duke’s front seven

Northwestern’s difficulties along the offensive line against Nevada have been well-documented. Justin Jackson, John Moten, and Jeremy Larkin struggled to find holes and get to the second level against a run defense that was one of the worst in the FBS in 2016. The going will get tougher against Duke, which features several playmakers in its front seven.

The Blue Devils are deploying a strong group of linebackers for this game. Sophomore Joe Giles-Harris and junior Ben Humphreys combined for 20.5 tackles for losses in 2016, while junior Tinashe Bere returns after missing the 2016 season with a knee injury. Add defensive end Tre Hornbuckle, who flashed playmaking ability in week one with 3.5 tackles for loss and two hurries, and you get a front seven with havoc-making capabilities. Northwestern’s offensive line will have a stiffer challenge in Durham on Saturday. Failing to establish the run game early could have more drastic effects than it did last week.

Northwestern’s defensive line vs. Duke’s offensive line.

While Northwestern struggled to muster three yards per carry against a supposedly flimsy Nevada defense, Duke had no problem running the ball against North Carolina Central, piling up 243 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground. North Carolina Central is a FCS school, so take those numbers with a grain of salt, but Duke running backs Brittain Brown and Shaun Wilson looked like the real deal while rushing for a combined 9.4 yards per carry. Gabe Brandner and Austin Davis lead a talented Duke offensive line that also features Evan Lisle, a former Ohio State tackle. Quarterback Daniel Jones is a credible threat to run as well, so generating pressure up front will be crucial come Saturday. Joe Gaziano and Tyler Lancaster looked solid against Nevada, but another defensive lineman needs to step up. Sam Miller earned the start alongside Gaziano this week, so look for the freshman to make stops up front for Northwestern.