It was a hot, humid day in Durham, with an odd sense of delirium hanging in the air. The hazy blaze of the bright sun made everything a slog. A football game was set to kick off, but this was no place for college football, and the students, opting for hangover-curing sleep, or studying, or whatever else there is to do in Durham, agreed. The stadium was so empty you wouldn’t have even known Duke had students other than the football players themselves.
At Wallace Wade Stadium, the away team’s locker rooms are located in a small building detached from the stadium — which isn’t much more than a field. The Northwestern players, on this sweaty, awkward walk to the turf, tried to get pumped up. They chanted their usual chants, danced their usual dances and ran out like any other gameday.
But this was no average gameday. It was much, much worse.
To spare you the carnage, I’ll keep this brief. The visiting Wildcats scored first, before surrendering 41 of the game’s next 48 points, falling 41-17 in a game that wasn’t even that close. Northwestern got outsmarted, out-physicaled, out-worked and basically got beat in every measurable way.
Looking back, there’s no good explanation for what happened. In closet-sized media room that served as a makeshift press conference room, Pat Fitzgerald cited poor execution after the game. There are deeper reasons why Northwestern often struggles to contain dual-threat quarterbacks like Daniel Jones, and missed tackles weren’t the only reason the Wildcat defense got torched on RPO after RPO, but Fitz was pretty much right. Some days, you just don’t have it — even if you’re a good team, a 10-win team, playing against a mediocre one.
That terrible, no good, very bad day in Durham feels like forever ago. The team began to execute, found its groove and ripped off eight straight wins to end the year. The narrative surrounding Northwestern football is entirely different. That’s what makes Saturday’s rematch between NU and Duke so important for Pat Fitzgerald & Co.
Beating Duke would accomplish a lot of things, none of which relate to Northwestern’s main goals of winning their division and the conference (and the national championship, I suppose). A Saturday victory would not only keep the winning streak going, but also keeps NU in a strong position going forward. Take down Duke, and you’re 2-0 with a should-win matchup with Akron. Win that, and you’re undefeated going into the bye week, with a head of steam going into the meat of the schedule.
No, Duke doesn’t count toward conference record, but, with so many tough games on the docket, Northwestern needs to take advantage of a game like this. Don’t get me wrong, Duke is good, and potentially better than many of NU’s Big Ten opponents. But this is certainly a game NU could and should win at home, especially with an extra day to prepare.
More than the concrete implications of the game, though, Northwestern needs to beat Duke because of what happened last season. NU got flat-out embarrassed, and there should be huge motivation to avenge that loss. Because these two teams have played so much recently and the coaches are so friendly with each other, it’s a little like a conference game. Just one wrinkle or change, enough to catch the opponent off guard, could be the difference.
Maybe that wrinkle is Northwestern’s new two quarterback system. Maybe it’s the offensive line’s stability. Or maybe Duke will continue to throw the Wildcats off with the mobility of their own quarterback. We’ll find out Saturday.