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The weird, inexplicable history of the Northwestern-Duke “rivalry”

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The two out of conference foes have met surprisingly often over the last four decades.

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Duke absolutely owns Northwestern.

Well, at least it did back in the late 1980s, beating the Wildcats six years in a row from ‘85 to ‘90, and usually winning by a more than comfortable margin. Strangely enough, those were the first six meetings in the two programs’ histories, yet they have already managed to play each other on the gridiron 20 times in that 35-year span, developing a bizarre pseudo-rivalry unique to college football.

The all-time series is knotted up at 10 apiece, as by the time the two schools’ next series began (1996), Gary Barnett had built Northwestern football into a well-oiled machine never before seen in Evanston, and thus, the ‘Cats won seven out of eight consecutive matchups against Duke from ‘96 to ‘04, completely changing course from their previous futility in the ‘80s.

Pat Fitzgerald has gotten quite familiar with Duke himself, having now coached in six games against the ACC Coastal foe, and sporting a 3-3 record in said games. This Saturday, he gets his shot to help NU retake the lead in the on-again, off-again rivalry, and with the two schools having agreed upon playing each other three more times up to 2024, the purple and white could take full control with a prolonged stretch of powerful play.

In a sport that thrives off chaos and impossibly weird scenarios, Northwestern vs. Duke stands as one of the great nonsensical wonders of college football. Sure, jokes can be made about the all the nerds wanting to play each other, and they do share similarities as smaller private schools punching up a weight class against public power five programs, but where else in CFB can you find a series that sprang up as randomly as this one did?

In 1985, the two played each other for the first time, and Duke killed the ‘Cats to the tune of 40-17. Because that first bout apparently went so swimmingly, and the two decided they should make this an annual tradition for a little while. Meeting six straight years to close out the penultimate decade of the 20th century, the Blue Devils were catching Northwestern in a period of transition. That transition, of course, was from “possibly the worst football program ever” during the Rick Venturi-led era, to just normal bad under head coaches Dennis Green and Francis Peay. Year after year, NU inched closer to upsetting their North Carolina-based foes, but could never quite pull off the upset.

The closest they got during this first era of the bizarro rivalry was on Sept. 15, 1990, in match number six. In their season opener, Northwestern took a 24-20 lead late in the fourth following a touchdown run from halfback Eric Dixon. Additionally, the ‘Cats had the ball with just over three minutes remaining before punting the ball away and pinning Duke inside their own five-yard line. Unfortunately, the Blue Devils managed to piece together a long, arduous drive and found the end zone with 38 seconds left to escape Evanston with a win.

“This was like someone stealing your sucker when you were a little kid,” said Northwestern wide receiver Richard Buchannan following the devastating loss. “The game was ours.”

A hiatus would ensue until 1996, when it was now Northwestern’s turn to catch Duke at a time of downturn in their program’s history. From ‘96 to ‘03, the Blue Devils recorded not one, not two, but THREE 0-11 seasons. Overall, they left that eight-year period with a win-loss record of 15-75. Meanwhile, the ‘Cats were just coming off their famed ‘95 Rose Bowl season, and though they still had plenty of losing seasons to come, they also put together two accomplished, winning squads in 1996 and 2000.

Thus, NU would dominate this rivalry for the time being. Save for a 44-10 beatdown that Duke won at Ryan Field in 1998, Northwestern repeatedly beat up on the Blue Devils, often in impressive fashion. The 2000 ‘Cats posted what might have been a CFB Scorigami with a 38-5 win in Evanston, and though the ‘01 squad only won four out of 11 games that season, one happened to be a 44-7 drubbing of their blue and white opponents.

The shortest (and in actuality, most normal) series these two have played was a home-and-home in 2007 and 2008, which many will recognize as the second and third years of Pat Fitzgerald’s head coaching tenure (2008 was also the first campaign of Duke’s David Cutcliffe, who has achieved a surprising amount of success during his long tenure and is well-respected by many, including Fitzgerald).

The ‘07 loss was excruciating, with the ‘Cats falling 20-14 at home despite outgaining Duke by 200 yards, and Northwestern QB CJ Bacher throwing 50 pass attempts for over 300 yards, yet finishing without a touchdown and two interceptions. The 2008 matchup, however, was a role reversal, with NU emerging victorious. Despite Duke racking up 150 more yards from scrimmage and posting nearly 40 minutes of game time possession, they fell 24-20 to the ‘Cats. One factor that helped was this hilarious disaster of a punt that Duke’s Kevin Jones likely has been trying to scrub from the internet for the past 13 years.

The last go-around prior to Saturday’s matchup are the four games fans remember the most — the four-game series from 2015 to 2018. Despite only winning by a score of 19-10 in 2015, the ‘Cats’ victory over Duke that year was one of their most thorough, as the 10-3 squad only won three games all season by more than one possession, and got shellacked in all three of their losses.

2016 was more of the same, with NU grinding out a defensive 24-13 victory, cemented by a hilarious coverage bust from the Blue Devils. I’m no football mastermind, but methinks it would be smart to not forget about Austin Carr running straight down the middle of the field.

2017 and 2018 are the less enjoyable ones for Pat Fitzgerald and his staff, and likely will serve as large motivators for those fifth- and sixth-year players on Northwestern this Saturday. The 2017 Wildcats also went 10-3 and finished No. 17 in the AP Poll, yet one of their three defeats was them getting round house kicked by a 7-6 Duke team 41-17 in Durham. A year later, the ‘Cats suffered a dull and dreary 21-7 defeat, unable to solve the Blue Devils’ defense or Daniel Jones, who I’m sure has done just as well in the NFL.

And that all leads us to right here, right now. Northwestern’s football program is in a much better estate than Duke’s, but given the weird and evenly split history they share, who’s to say with any confidence how these next four meetings go?

To put it in shocking perspective, Northwestern has played the Blue Devils more often than they have played conference foe Penn State. The Nittany Lions joined the B1G all the way back in 1993 and yet have only faced NU on 19 such occasions. Duke and Northwestern have played sporadically enough that they practically serve as an opposite-division foe in the conference. Not played so often as to garner hatred and yearly shenanigans such as Illinois and Io_a, but have shown up on the block just enough that they have a rep amongst NU faithful.

One of college football’s strangest, most sporadic pseudo-rivalries starts up again this weekend down in North Carolina, and how lucky (?) we are to have it.