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.
The next team in our series is Duke, which absolutely throttled Northwestern in Durham last season. Northwestern will face the Blue Devils Sept. 8 in Evanston, with a lot of preparation time after a Thursday night game in Week 1. Duke returns Daniel Jones at quarterback, who is a dynamic player in the run-pass option game.
Northwestern and Duke know each other very well, and have had some good battles over the years. Without further ado, here’s our preview of the Blue Devils:
Returning production: 80 percent (82 percent on offense, 78 percent on defense)
2017 record: 7-6 (3-5 ACC)
Coach: David Cutcliffe (11th season, 59-67)
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.
2017 S&P+ Overall: 65th
2017 S&P+ Offense: 90th
2017 S&P+ Defense: 40th
2018 S&P+ Projection: 40th
Duke was really good, then really bad, then good again. After starting the season 4-0, the Blue Devils lost six straight before winning their last three. Of course, they throttled Northwestern 41-17 in Week 2. Wins over Baylor and UNC may have looked decent at the time, but those teams went a combined 4-20 last season. Looking back, Duke’s utter domination of NU is pretty unexplainable.
Once ACC play rolled around Duke struggled to score, averaging just over 12 points per game during its losing streak. The running game was pretty good — it ranked 39th in S&P+ — but the passing game slogged at 97th in S&P+. There wasn’t really an explanation for the six-game losing streak (other than youth). With Jones under center, the offense really should’ve been better than it was.
Losing to Virginia, Pitt and Army really hurt; Virginia Tech, Florida State and Miami make more sense. Duke avoided Clemson and Louisville on its schedule in 2017, so things could’ve been even worse record-wise.
The defense kept the team afloat, a good rush defense and an elite pass defense, ranking No. 6 in the country in defensive passing success rate. The defensive success was even more impressive given the struggles by the offense.
As a young team, the Blue Devils lost four games by a touchdown or less. Another year of experience from the team should result in better results in close games, though the schedule is more difficult in 2018. In the same way NU got nearly every break by winning three straight overtimes games and a razor-close game in the bowl game, Duke got almost no breaks.
The offense starts and ends with Jones, a 6-foot-5 dual-threat quarterback. Jones returns after a sophomore season in which he threw for 2,691 yards and rushed for 715 yards. He combined to account for 21 total touchdowns, which wasn’t great. He also turned the ball over 15 times (11 interceptions and four lost fumbles). His 56.7 percent completion wasn’t as high as it needed to be, especially in a spread offense where many of throws are quick and short. Jones averaged 5.2 yards per attempt last season, ranking No. 102 out of 110 qualified candidates.
The talent is there for Jones, and Northwestern fans probably know that better than just about anybody else. Where the run-pass option is humming, it keeps a defense on its heels, and Jones can use his feet and mobility to escape from pressure and get out of broken plays.
At running back, leading rusher Shaun Wilson graduated, but there shouldn’t be a huge drop-off in production. Wilson rushed for 818 yards on five yards per carry, but freshman Brittain Brown returns after a 712-yard campaign on 5.4 yards per carry. Brown is a bigger back at 6-foot-1, so, on its surface, durability isn’t a major concern. Wilson was the more heavily-used receiving back last season, so Brown will need to prove his pass-catching chops. Sophomore Deon Jackson should also see carries.
In the passing game, Duke brings back a formidable trio of senior receivers in T.J. Rahming, Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor. Rahming is the headliner, coming of a season in which he caught 65 passes for 795 yards and had nearly twice as many targets as the next most targeted pass-catcher. The Wildcats should remember Rahming after he torched a depleted secondary for 127 yards on 12 catches a season ago.
Tight end wasn’t a huge part of the offense, but Daniel Helm and Davis Koppenhaver return as seniors and both stand at 6-foot-4. The duo combined for 415 yards a season ago, and Helm was the highest marginal efficiency of any pass-catcher on the team.
There’s a lot of continuity at the skill positions, but the offensive line is another story. Both starting tackles and all-conference center Austin Davis are gone, so there are going to be some new faces playing up front in 2018. When NU plays Duke in Week 2, there could still be some fluidity there.
Duke’s defense gave up a lot of big plays last season, but it also forced a lot of turnovers and three-and-outs. The defense was young last season, so more experience could help to limit the number of splash plays allowed it 2018.
The Blue Devil secondary ranked sixth in the country in havoc rate, and Mark Gilbert proved to be a budding star at cornerback. With strong size at 6-foot-1, Gilbert had six interceptions, three tackles for loss and 14 pass breakups last season.
Seven of the top eight defensive lineman return, and the top four linebackers from 2017 are also back. There isn’t a ton of top-end talent on the D-line, but there’s strong depth.
Linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys are downhill, attacking players, combining for 25 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season. There’s explosion and speed on the edges of the front-seven, though the middle is more of a question.
But make no mistake, this defense was good last season when it was really young. Now a year older and more experienced, this unit could be a really good in 2018.
Three Players to Know
Jones has been mentioned a lot here, but he’s truly the offense’s fulcrum. Because of his role in the running game, he has even more of an imprint on the game than a more prototypical quarterback would. If he can harness all the tools he has and get everything to click, he could be one of the best quarterbacks in a loaded ACC.
Rahming is a good possession receiver, but also an explosive punt returner. He’s open a lot, and, while he may not be the most explosive player ever, he’s just a good productive, player. After giving NU fits last season (no pun intended), Rahming should see a lot of Montre Hartage in this season’s game.
Also mentioned above, Gilbert is playmaking, ballhawking corner. Another successful season from Gilbert could create some NFL buzz for the long, rangy North Carolina native.