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Three matchups to watch against Duke

Whether it comes down to kickers or coaches, this Saturday’s duel will be action-packed.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

In an alternate universe, Ryan Hilinksi’s name is Riley Leonard and the Northwestern Wildcats go by the moniker “the Duke Blue Devils.” After Leonard put up an almost identical statline to Hilinski against the Temple Owls in Duke’s 30-0 Week 1 rout, the Blue Devils enter Ryan Field as a formidable opponent for the ‘Cats. Here are three battles whose outcome might determine this week’s victor.

Duke’s pass rush vs. Northwestern’s offensive line

A shutout is a shutout no matter how you angle it. What the Blue Devils did to stifle a Temple offense — albeit, a traditionally underwhelming unit — is an impressive feat. It’s easy to forget that the NCAA doesn’t offer players any sort of preseason tune up prior to the start of the regular season, so for a defense to work together so cohesively out of the gates, regardless of the opponent, is a startling statement that the ‘Cats should pay close attention to.

All this to give Duke’s defense its flowers, but there was one shortcoming in their curb-stomping win over Temple: the pass rush. Notching zero sacks against a Temple offensive line that allowed a quarterback takedown on over 7% of offensive snaps last year is one stat the team’s players won’t admire come post-game breakdown.

Staring Duke’s pass rushers in the eyes on Saturday will be Peter Skoronski and Co. — so far, a menacing offensive line that managed to fend off Nebraska’s pressure for the entirety of the Week 0 competition. Skoronski, a projected first round pick in this upcoming NFL Draft, anchors a line that is returning a few previously injured, still gargantuan guards (see: Josh Priebe and Conrad Rowley, both weighing in at 308 pounds). The acclaimed success of Ryan Hilinski’s Irish outing hinged largely on the offensive line’s ability to keep their quarterback’s pants clean all afternoon.

Now knowing what Hilinski is capable of if given time to operate in the pocket, there must be a supreme sense of urgency among the Blue Devils’ pass rushers to flush him out into open space on Saturday. And while this initiative, if accomplished, offers a potentially game-altering payout, it might not be so easy once the pads are on this weekend. Given the stakes, it’s certainly a battle worth watching.

Mike Elko vs. Pat Fitzgerald

Many build up coaching battles between two great minds to be some heavyweight, titan-on-titan, all-stakes affair. Are they actually? Yes, yes they are. Games have so much to do with how head coaches train their players and make decisions on gameday. These coaching battles take place on some of the most microscopic levels, such as when to get in a ref’s ear after a questionable call or when to engage with the offense on the sideline after a bad series.

What makes the Elko/Fitzgerald duel so tantalizing is the pair’s contrast in their experience yet similarity in style. Elko, formerly the defensive coordinator at a flurry of schools (most recently with Texas A&M), will make only his second head coaching appearance ever against the Wildcats after debuting this past Saturday against the Owls. Looming across the field from him will be Fitzgerald, who scribbled in his 200th win as Northwestern’s head coach two weekends ago.

While about 16 years of experience separate the two on paper, they share a hard-nosed philosophy, as though both climbed their way up to the helm as defensive assistants.

Elko’s exact ideology is still unknown when it comes to things like fourth-down attempts and general aggressiveness. It’s one thing for the Blue Devils’ coach to visualize what he’d do in the high-stress, eyes-on-him situations that frequent competitive football games. It’s another to actually carry out those visions. Fitz has the advantage of having been there and having done that. In all likelihood, little is left up to his imagination nowadays. It’ll be a worthwhile watch to compare (and more often contrast) how the rookie and the vet compete on Saturday.

Charlie Ham vs. himself

A philosopher at some point in time must’ve drawn up a quote about the importance of internal conflict, right? If so, that should be on Duke kicker Charlie Ham’s reading list this week.

After starting his season 3-for-6 on field goals, dropping attempts from 26, 32 and 51 yards out, Ham’s confidence might not be where the Blue Devils need it to be. Perhaps the duds were thanks to some opening-game jitters. Perhaps there’s a bigger issue at play. Undoubtedly, Duke will call Ham’s number against Northwestern, and the points he’d leave on the field if he has a repeat outing would be a tough, maybe lethal pill for the Blue Devils to swallow.

Ham’s struggles in Week 1 might open the door for Northwestern special teams coach Jeff Genyk to play a more intense game of cat and mouse than normal with his opposition. Genyk and Fitzgerald might utilize a timeout or two to ice Duke’s boot, giving him some more time to think about that most recent showing. Genyk may dial in for his guys to give some extra twitches along the line of scrimmage to take Ham’s eye off his holder’s fingers. Who knows? The beauty of lackluster special teams play is that it leaves every possibility on the table.

Add in the expected rainfall in Evanston on Saturday, and suddenly Ham’s dealing with his mind and the weather. The Blue Devils’ kicker could easily rebound at Ryan Field, but if he doesn’t find his footing (pun intended), suddenly this storyline becomes a whole lot more impactful.