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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Duke

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Northwestern will need to be on top of its game.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Every week 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.

This week, Northwestern takes the field against a Duke team led by David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe is entering his 10th season at the helm and is looking to turn around a team that went 4-8 last season. Northwestern was okay in its opener against Nevada, but will need to play better if it wants to notch a road win in Durham.

Why Northwestern will beat Duke

Duke fails to make effective passes and its offense stalls out

This point could easily say “Northwestern’s secondary plays well,” but given that Northwestern is down two cornerbacks and might be missing Marcus McShepard as well, it’s more likely that Duke fails to execute. Last year, Duke relied on short passing plays and utilizing second-year quarterback Daniel Jones’ arm. Against Northwestern — and multiple times late in the season — Jones threw over 45 passes. With Northwestern’s secondary a clear weakness on Saturday, Duke needs to throw the ball effectively to win.

Last time, Duke failed at nearly everything it tried to do in the air. Hopefully, that lack of timing and precision happens again. Duke’s defense is good, but it will hopefully not do enough to stop Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson and Northwestern’s crop of wide receivers. If the defense gets no help from Jones and the passing attack, Northwestern will be in the driver’s seat.

Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson do their thing

Last week brought out the best in Thorson, but we didn’t see the breakout Justin Jackson game we were expecting. Duke has done a good job bottling up Jackson in their previous meetings (3.4 yards per carry across two games). But if Northwestern can really establish its rushing attack and play action passes against a rather inexperienced secondary, the Blue Devils won’t be able to keep up even if Jones does have a big day.

Duke’s special teams implode

Duke finished 119th in special teams S&P last season, and they now feature a dual kicker/punter. This point is pretty simple. If Duke misses a couple field goals or has a punt blocked, it could put them in real trouble. You get the feeling that Duke has to be on top of its game to beat Northwestern, even at home, and any special teams mistakes could be devastating. Not having to face Solomon Vault, the player who burned them in 2015, is a huge bonus though.

Why Duke will beat Northwestern

Duke pressures Clayton Thorson

Northwestern’s revamped offensive line was passable against Nevada, but it will face a much sterner test against Duke, who finished 32nd in adjusted sack rate in 2016. Sophomore DE Tre Hornbuckle tallied 4.5 tackles for losses against NC Central, and his teammate Victor Dimukeje also impressed with 1.5 sacks. There’s also linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, who had 4 solo tackles and a sack against Northwestern last season.

Last year, Duke sacked Thorson 5 times with 12 quarterback hurries and 11 tackles for loss. The Blue Devils certainly didn’t lose because of their pass rush. Many of those players are back, and, as mentioned, Northwestern needs to protect Thorson to survive this game. Thorson may be even better at avoiding pressure than ever before, but even he won’t be able to escape a consistent pass rush given the talent on Duke’s roster. Also, Northwestern needs to run block better. That’s fairly obvious.

See, I’m pretty confident in Northwestern’s ability to win a shootout with Duke. I’ll take Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson, Garrett Dickerson, and NU’s Hydra of wide receivers over Duke’s skill position players any day. That’s why I’m not extremely worried about the secondary, even if that’s arguably the team’s biggest weakness. But the definition of a shootout requires that both quarterbacks have plenty of time to throw, and Thorson needs time to win on Saturday.

Northwestern’s defensive line struggles again

Northwestern’s defensive line generated zero pressure against Ty Gangi and Nevada last week. That has to change in Week 2. Northwestern doesn’t necessarily need to sack Jones every other play, but it must keep him off-balance to bail out whatever lapses happen in the secondary (and there will be lapses, especially against a talented Duke receiver corps). If Jones gets all day to throw, he will hurt Northwestern. Over the last calendar year, he’s improved greatly.

Northwestern lacks ball security

Northwestern had two very bad turnovers last week against Nevada, not to mention a close call on a Jackson fumble that was ruled to be forward progress. The Wolf Pack weren’t able to capitalize, but those mistakes will be punished by Duke. Fitzgerald must’ve been driven crazy by the lack of ball security, as those types of mistakes haunted Northwestern early in 2016. If Northwestern has even one or two bad turnovers (especially those that come in either red zone) against Duke, the Wildcats are probably going to lose. The margins are that thin in this game.