After a come-from-behind, single-digit victory over Nebraska in Dublin, the Wildcats return to Evanston to take on the Blue Devils in their home opener. Duke (1-0) opened its season with a blowout 30-0 win against Temple. The victory gave a glimpse at the Duke’s potential but still left a lot unanswered concerning how they might match up to an opponent of Northwestern's caliber. Here are three things to know about the Blue Devils before their arrival at Ryan Field.
Duke's offense has playmakers all over the field
In what became evident throughout their game against Temple, the Blue Devils' offense can move the football efficiently. After finishing 102nd in the nation last year, Duke hired Kevin Johns from Memphis as its new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Johns’ spread offense includes lots of motion and high usage of run-pass options to get playmakers in space. In week one, the Blue Devils executed their system to perfection.
Duke’s quarterback Riley Leonard completed 24 of 30 passes, throwing for 328 yards and two touchdowns. He found wide receivers Jalon Calhoun and Jordan Moore consistently through the game, who both forced missed tackles and showed off their blazing speed that kept the Temple defense on their heels all game. Johns’ zone running scheme, a staple of the spread offense, propelled it to nearly 200 yards on the ground. The offensive line was creating holes, eventually helping it to climb to the second level and block through the secondary, leaving the running backs one on one with a safety. Tight end Nick Dalmolin was also a massive part of the Blue Devils' run game, kicking out closing defensive ends on counters and split zone runs. With a strong running game, Duke forced Temple to play downhill, allowing for the RPO to work right in the middle of the defense.
Robb Smith’s defense is deceptive
Every single couch QB (myself Included) has at one point screamed at the TV “why are you throwing it there.” However, Duke does a very good job at disguising their coverages in order to confuse opposing quarterbacks. Duke is a standard cover-three team, meaning the defensive backs splits the fields into thirds, with the two outside corners playing the two outside thirds and one safety playing the middle third of the field. They will also mix some man coverage in, but maintain the one safety in the middle of the field.
However, Smith will have his defense show two safeties in the middle of the field, making it look like it will be cover two or cover four before rotating his safeties to get to his usual one high safety look. By making it look like two safeties and then rotating to one safety, the defense throws off the quarterback's pre-snap read on what he wants to do with the football, causing mistakes that hopefully lead to turnovers. Hilinski will need to trust his preparations and post-snap reads to not be fooled by the Blue Devils.
Kicking may be Duke’s Achilles Heel
For anyone who says special teams don’t matter, Scott Frost, Brian Kelly and ECU would like to have a word with you. Week one showed that the easiest way to lose a game is in the kicking game, and that was Duke’s lone lowlight in a rather perfect game week one. Duke kicker Charlie Ham missed three out of his six attempts, including two inside 35 yards. Wildcat fans are familiar with kicking woes, but hopefully any issues this weekend will come from the opposing side.