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Three matchups to watch: Northwestern vs. Duke

Some intriguing individual battles in this one.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Gameday is just a few days away. So with Saturday looming, it’s time to start digging a little deeper into the intricacies of the contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. Let’s look at the three matchups that may decide Northwestern’s game against Duke:

1. Bennett Skowronek vs. Mark Gilbert

Skowronek’s numbers in week one — three catches for 47 yards — were relatively pedestrian. But, his ability to both act as a possession receiver and deeper downfield threat make him Northwestern’s best and most dangerous wideout, which means it will be important for him to get open Saturday against Mark Gilbert, one of the better corners in the country. A preseason All-America candidate, Gilbert is a physical, lockdown corner with good ball skills. He’ll give up three inches to Skowronek, which could be troublesome in the red zone, but his ability to bump Skowronek off routes and disrupt the timing of throws will be a key determinant of how successful Northwestern’s offense is.

The Wildcats have plenty of options at receiver, but Skowronek is most important because of his consistency and versatility. If Clayton Thorson (or TJ Green) can’t find Skowronek regularly, there’s a decent chance the passing game will struggle to produce explosive plays down the field. Skowronek has a huge opportunity ahead of him against Gilbert, which should be fun to watch.

2. Montre Hartage vs. T.J. Rahming

In last season’s matchup between these two teams, Rahming ran wild against NU’s secondary, hauling in 12 receptions for 127 yards and routinely torching soft coverage. Granted, Northwestern’s secondary was absolutely ravaged by injuries, forcing safety Kyle Queiro to play corner and Trae Williams to make his season debut when he probably wasn’t ready. But, as a possession receiver who runs precise routes, Rahming posed problems drive after drive.

NU may not have Hartage shadowing Rahming, in part because Duke has other solid receivers, but it might be a smart idea. Rahming isn’t the most explosive receiver, but he moves the chains, and made it difficult for Northwestern to get off the field in last season’s blowout. If defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has to shift a safety over to cover Rahming, NU will have issues in the box against Duke’s RPO-heavy system or in the middle of the field against an athletic group of tight ends. Hartage is Northwestern’s best corner, so you’d like to think he can take Rahming out of the game and free up a safety. We’ll see Saturday.

3. Northwestern’s linebackers against Daniel Jones

Jones befuddled Northwestern’s defense all game last season, blending intermediate throwing and running in an unpredictable, dangerous offensive attack. Jones’s ability to neutralize the NU linebackers on the run-pass option completely dictated the game; Paddy Fisher had 18 tackles, but that was in large part because Duke was on the field so much.

On Saturday, Fisher, Nate Hall and Blake Gallagher will have to diagnose these RPO’s and play gap-sound defense. If any of the linebackers overrun the play, Jones has the legs and the arm to make them pay. The defensive line has an equally important role is disrupting these options, but the linebackers are typically the ones making the plays, and missed tackles could really hurt this week. The defense faced a similar challenge in the second half last week against David Blough and Purdue, but Jones is a better runner than Blough and Duke poses a more balanced threat. Having the film from last season’s debacle will certainly help stymie the RPOs this year, but whether or not the linebackers can adjust to whatever new wrinkle Duke rolls out will be key.