Why Northwestern WILL beat Duke
The offensive line comes to play again
The offensive line was key to Northwestern’s victory in Ireland over Nebraska, opening up holes for the running backs and giving Ryan Hilinski time to find open receivers downfield. Their collective performance was so dominant, it earned them offensive player of the week honors from Pat Fitzgerald and the coaching staff. Duke’s pass rush was ineffective last week against Temple, registering zero sacks, so Skoronski and Co. should be licking their lips staring down their opponents pre-snap. If Northwestern can have continued success with their balanced attack, using Evan Hull and Cam Porter to open up the passing game, the Wildcats will likely be victorious in their home opener at Ryan Field on Saturday.
The running game
Northwestern’s victory in Week Zero illustrated many things, one of which being that the ‘Cats have absolute studs that they can hand the ball off to. The one-two punch of Hull and Porter set the tone for the Wildcats against the Cornhuskers, combining for 213 yards on 41 carries. The ‘Cats will need to rely on the running game to chew up the clock and keep the impressively competent Duke offense, led by dual threat quarterback Riley Leonard, off the field. If NU turns this into an old-fashioned, ball control, rock-fight type of game, they’ll be singing the fight song once the final whistle blows.
Why Northwestern WON’T beat Duke
Duke’s athletes force missed tackles
Missed tackles plagued Northwestern’s defense a season ago, allowing opponents to turn plays that could’ve been contained into big, game-changing momentum swings. Duke has an athletic quarterback in Leonard, who threw for 328 yards last week against Temple and added 64 rushing yards on 11 carries. Basically all of those carries were out of passing sets, meaning the ‘Cats must contain Leonard and keep him from scrambling for big chunks of yards. Leonard found receivers Jalon Calhoun and Jordan Moore throughout last week’s game, who both forced missed tackles and demonstrated speed that could stretch the Wildcat defense thin and put Jim O’Neil’s group in danger. The Duke offensive line created holes that allowed their running backs to penetrate the second level of the defense, and missed tackles from Northwestern’s back seven could lead to a long day for the ‘Cats.
Northwestern’s offense cannot keep up in a shootout
Maybe Northwestern’s offense is good enough to consistently rack up 500 yards a game. I would bet on probably not. Duke’s offense was also rolling in their opener against Temple. However, that was not against the same caliber defense as the ‘Cats present to the Blue Devils. Nevertheless, Leonard played a nearly perfect game, utilizing his arm and legs to find open receivers and expose holes in the defense. Northwestern has historically found success with a balanced attack in all three phases of the game. If they allow the Duke offense to spread the field and score early, playing catch up will not suit the Wildcats well. The defense needs to set up the Northwestern offense, not the other way around. If this game turns into a shootout, the Blue Devils could potentially leave Evanston 2-0.