The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Up next is Duke, who has beaten Northwestern in the teams’ previous two matchups in 2017 and 2018.
Returning Production: 56 percent overall (Offense 51 percent, Defense 62 percent)
2020 record: 2-9 (1-9 ACC)
Coach: David Cutcliffe
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2020 S&P+ Overall: 104th
2020 S&P+ Offense: 114th
2020 S&P+ Defense: 83rd
The 2020 Duke Blue Devils had a lot in common with the 2019 Northwestern Wildcats. They entered the season with high expectations headlined by the arrival of Clemson transfer Chase Brice and a plethora of returning talent to boot, but they sputtered out of the gate, losing their first four games of the season.
Most of the initial losses, which came against the weaker teams in the conference, were winnable. Duke blew two second-half leads against NC State and Virginia and failed to score after the first quarter against Boston College. In the first six games of the season, Brice threw 11 interceptions to six touchdowns.
The hope was that David Cutcliffe, Duke’s current and greatest head coach of all time, would be able to right the ship, but the offense continued to be marred by turnover problems while the defense was unable to string together stops.
Duke finished the year tied for last place in the ACC, with their lone victory coming against a Syracuse team that also finished 1-9 in conference play. Brice’s play did not improve as the year went on, throwing for just under 200 yards per game with just 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Blue Devils ended their season on a four-game losing streak, giving up an average of 54 (!) points per game which included an ugly 48-0 loss to Miami in their penultimate game.
The big question for Duke’s offense this year is whether or not it can limit turnovers. The Blue Devils turned the ball over a whopping 39 times last season, the most in the country by 14 giveaways. This number was a large reason why Duke ranked 114th in offensive SP+ at the end of the year. Although interceptions were also a big part of that figure, ball security was an issue that will need to be addressed going into this season.
In terms of personnel, nearly half of the offensive production from 2020 is gone. The good news for Duke is that most of the players that left were not particularly high-performing, and there is a solid group of talented players returning. Mataeo Durant, preseason All-ACC selection and Duke’s leading rusher from last season, returns to Durham for his senior year. After Brice’s second transfer, this time to Appalachian State, the hope is that his projected replacement, Gunnar Holmberg, will provide some much-needed stability and consistency to the position. Holmberg, a redshirt junior, has seen limited action in his time at Duke mostly due to injury, and the level he will play at as a full-time starter is hard to predict. There is stability in the offensive line, with the return of center Jack Wohlabaugh from injury, as well as sophomore tackle Graham Barton and guard Kade Parmelly.
Given last year’s woes, new co-offensive coordinators Re’quan Boyette and Jeff Faris will be under a lot of pressure to have the offense perform better than they did in 2020. And with the group that they have, a return to the middle of the pack in offensive ratings in SP+ can be expected.
Despite having three defensive players drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft, Duke finished a disappointing 83rd defensive SP+ last season. All three of the draftees had stellar seasons in 2020, but despite some fine individual play, it was poor run defense that really hurt the Blue Devils; as a whole, the defense gave up 213 rushing yards per game and 31 rushing touchdowns. To make matters worse, three of the four starters on the defensive line are gone, including NFL draft picks Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje who combined for 15.5 sacks last year.
The good news is that the linebacker corps has the chance to be excellent this year, and Duke will need it to be if their defense is going to bounce back from their less-than-mediocre performance last season. Junior Shaka Heyward has NFL potential and led the team in tackles in 2020, while sophomore Dorian Mausi should make an impact given his speed and athleticism.
While Duke lost some key production on the defensive side of the ball, it retains a lot of talent heading into this season, from players who showed promise last year to returners from injury. After another year in which the defense underperformed, fourth-year co-defensive coordinators Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri will be on the hot seat(s) in 2021.
Three Players to Know
As Northwestern fans know all too well, the difference between shaky and competent quarterback play can drastically alter a team’s success, particularly in the realm of college football. Chase Brice did not meet the expectations many had for him, as Duke fans were relegated to watching him struggle to find any rhythm in a season to forget. Granted, the offensive line had its share of troubles and Brice did not have a very talented wide receiver room to work with, but Brice’s propensity for turning the ball over prevented the Blue Devils from finding sustained offensive success.
With Holmberg, expectations are not as high. He likely won’t be tasked with throwing the ball 40 times a game, but rather serve more of a glorified game manager role à la Peyton Ramsey in 2020. The junior has not seen a lot of game-time action, but he’s the most experienced of all quarterbacks on the roster. Cutcliffe also seems to have faith in him, having named him the starter following spring ball. If he can make the right reads when needed and limit turnovers, Duke’s offense could see some major improvements, and it could be just enough to lead the Blue Devils to another upset victory against the Wildcats.
In his first year as a full-time starter, Heyward exceeded expectations and made his presence felt all over the stat sheet, tallying 80 tackles with 8.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, one fumble recovery, four QB hurries and a safety. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds and with good speed, he has strong attributes for an inside linebacker. Couple that with an equally strong work ethic— Heyward won the team’s Sonny Falcone Award, an honor presented annually to players for their year-round commitment to strength and conditioning — and the junior will likely play a major role in anchoring the defense. He is the marquee name that Mike Bajakian & Co. will have to plan around in the week before Sept. 18.
Given the uncertainty of the production that quarterback Gunnar Holmberg will bring, Durant is a player that will be a focal point of Duke’s offense. The offense will have an emphasis on the ground game given Durant’s talent, as he is a quick, shifty and tough runner. He ran for 817 yards on 6.8 yards per carry and eight touchdowns last season, and he will look to build on those figures as he takes full control of the backfield with the departure of Deon Jackson. One area in which the senior will have to improve in is his ability as a pass-catcher, a role that Jackson excelled in. If Durant can do that, then the ‘Cats will have their hands full with the Blue Devils no matter who their quarterback is.