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Why Northwestern Will/Won’t Beat Duke

A look into why or why not Northwestern will/won’t beat their non-conference rival.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Why Northwestern will beat Duke

Hunter Johnson plays well and turns the ball over fewer times than Duke’s QB

QB go far, team go far. If Hunter Johnson puts together a quality performance in Durham on Saturday, it will be hard for this Duke team, one that failed to best non-conference opponent Charlotte, to beat Northwestern.

So what does a quality performance look like? Ideally, one where Johnson does not throw an interception or lose a fumble. It also entails that he consistently throws the ball vertically — particularly to Stephon Robinson Jr. and Bryce Kirtz — with conviction and accuracy. Hopefully, Johnson settles into the game by completing some quick passes between 0-9 yards. NU found themselves in an early hole against Michigan State partially due to Johnson completing just over 50% of his passes between 0-9 yards in the first half. Johnson will also need to replicate his success from the middle of the field against MSU, where, between the 10-19 yard range, he completed five of seven passes.

While Johnson is not playing the strongest opponent in Duke, David Cutcliffe is a good enough head coach to know that he needs to do to force Hunter Johnson into processing difficult reads. Johnson needs to prove he is up to the task.

Northwestern’s skill position players are simply too much for Duke to handle

Charlotte’s leading receivers in their win over Duke, Victor Tucker and Grant DuBose, caught eight receptions for 133 yards and four receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns, respectively. Bryce Kirtz and Stephon Robinson Jr. likely possess more talent than Charlotte’s duo, and it is entirely possible that Northwestern’s wide receiver duo simply blows away Duke’s secondary, leading NU to victory in Durham.

Northwestern’s exterior defensive line and secondary prevents Duke’s offense from ever getting going

As poor as the defensive ends may have looked against Michigan State, this unit boasts a lot of talent between Samdup Miller, Adetomiwa Adebawore and even Jefferey Pooler Jr. While the jury is still out on Jim O’Neil, Northwestern’s ends should be capable of applying consistent pressure to Duke QB Gunnar Holmberg, which will be key to containing senior’s running ability.

In the secondary, Northwestern has one player capable of changing the game on any given play — Brandon Joseph. Duke does not have a single player that comes close to the pure talent of Joseph. If NU’s superior defensive talent plays to its ability, Northwestern will win this game.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Duke

Northwestern’s interior offensive and defensive lines struggle in the trenches

Against Sparty, Northwestern guards Charlie Schmidt and Josh Priebe struggled significantly. If the pocket is injected with pressure from Duke’s interior defensive line, Hunter Johnson will be flustered from the outset and NU’s ground game will be limited to solely running behind Peter Skoronski. That is not a recipe for success.

On the other side of the ball, Joe Spivak, Trevor Kent and Jeremy Meiser must clog the trenches, or Duke’s halfbacks could go crazy similar to the Kenneth Walker explosion of two weeks ago. A repeat of that letdown against their only other power five opponent to date would likely spell victory for the Blue Devils.

NU’s defense continues to struggle with the fundamentals

Northwestern’s inability to wrap up and make accurate pursuit angles in open space was the key to so many explosive plays for the Spartans. All levels of Northwestern’s defense must revert back to playing strong fundamental football, or else it will be another long afternoon for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad, especially against a team whose running back scampered for 255 yards just two weeks ago.

Mateo Durant delivers a Trey Sermon, Kenneth Walker-esque performance

As just mentioned, Duke’s starting running back, Mateo Durant, rushed for 255 yards against Charlotte. Recently, Northwestern’s defense has proven to be susceptible against these taller, downhill running backs of opposing teams. In games against Kenneth Walker and Trey Sermon, Northwestern allowed a whopping 596 yards on the ground combined to the two stud tailbacks. The ‘Cats need can’t allow that number to climb too much higher if they want to leave the field Saturday with a winning record.