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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Duke

This Saturday the Wildcats have the chance for revenge against a solid Duke team

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

After a close road victory over Purdue, the Wildcats begin their “best home schedule in football” by hosting Duke this Saturday. Last season Duke beat NU 41-17, and both teams enter Saturday’s game 1-0, hoping to get a big non-conference win and remain undefeated. Here are some scenarios in which Northwestern will or won’t beat the Blue Devils this Saturday in Evanston.

Why Northwestern will beat Duke

  1. Jeremy Larkin will continue his dominance

The Wildcats will count on Jeremy Larkin to have a strong follow-up performance to his strong showing in West Lafayette last Thursday. Larkin rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns against the Boilermakers and Northwestern will need him to have a similar caliber performance on Saturday for the Wildcats to have a chance of winning this game.

Northwestern’s quarterback “pitch count” and the uncertainty it brings, coupled with the fact that the Duke pass defense is very talented means that the Wildcats will need to rely on Jeremy Larkin more heavily. I expect Larkin to get more than 20 carries, potentially getting up near 30. If he has a good game and Northwestern controls the clock, the Wildcats will have a good shot Saturday.

2. Northwestern will dominate an inexperienced Blue Devil offensive line

By this point it’s well known that Northwestern has a strong front seven, and fortunately for the Wildcats, Duke lost both tackles and their all-conference center Austin Davis. Duke’s opponent last week, Army, still had difficulty pressuring Duke quarterback Daniel Jones. The Black Knights totaled one sack, en route to a 34-14 loss to Duke.

In order for the Wildcats to take down the Blue Devils, the Northwestern defense needs to limit the effectiveness of dual-threat Daniel Jones by bringing pressure. Paddy Fisher and the front seven can accomplish this by dominating the trenches, effectively limiting Duke’s pass attack and taking pressure off the Wildcat secondary.

3. The Wildcats’ should have more freedom with Clayton Thorson

In case you have been living under a rock, Clayton Thorson and TJ Green split snaps last Thursday. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and the medical staff implemented a “pitch count” system which dictated how often quarterback Clayton Thorson could play. Thorson is still recovering from a torn ACL in the Music City Bowl last December and has made a remarkably quick recovery. I expect the Wildcats to continue to use both quarterbacks, but would expect that Thorson would increase his snap count from last week, on his way to a full recovery.

Last week, Clayton Thorson went 16-of-26 and threw for 172 yards, whie TJ Green went 7-of-11 for 63 yards passing and a rushing touchdown. Thorson was very successful last season on short distance third down plays, taking many quarterback sneaks, and scrambling in many situations. While we did get to see Thorson scramble once last Thursday, as he has more time to continue to recover from his injury, I expect Thorson to take more risks, and be as mobile as he was in seasons’ previous.

Why Duke will beat Northwestern

  1. Daniel Jones will go-off again

The Blue Devils won last year’s game by making use of an explosive offense highlighted by junior quarterback Daniel Jones. Jones threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns and torched the injured Wildcat secondary. He is a very mobile quarterback and makes use of the run-pass option frequently. Jones was also the lead rusher against NU last season, rushing for 108 yards and two touchdowns.

Duke will win this game if Daniel Jones comes close or reaches the dominant performance of last season. He is the single biggest threat that the Wildcats will face and has the ability to light up the Wildcats’ vulnerable secondary. The Blue Devils will be as successful as Daniel Jones and their run-pass option.

2. The Blue Devils have a very talented group of receivers

Last season, Duke had a very inexperienced group of receivers and have lost only one player who caught a pass last season to graduation. The Blue Devils return an unprecedentedly high number of receivers and tight ends, 10 out of 11 who caught a pass. Senior T.J. Rahming is Duke’s go-to receiver, and one of the most experienced in all of Division 1. Coach Fitzgerald called him “a hell of a football player,” though qualifying the statement by saying his team “played like garbage last year.” Duke’s receiving corps will see the effectiveness of Rondale Moore against the Wildcat secondary and see a weakness for Northwestern.

3. Duke’s pass defense will neutralize Northwestern’s quarterbacks

The Blue Devils have a skilled pass defense and full of talented players. Duke’s secondary is led by cornerback Mark Gilbert, a preseason All-America candidate. Last season, Duke was sixth in passing success rate, and only loses two starters in their secondary. The Blue Devils have the upper hand with their secondary and have the ability to limit Clayton Thorson and TJ Green. Thorson attempted 29 passes but struggled to complete them last season, going 11-of-29 with two interceptions, If the Blue Devils can limit the effectiveness of Thorson and Green, they will limit the success of the Northwestern offense and win the game.