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How Duke-Northwestern is becoming a gridiron rivalry

The programs, which are no strangers to one another, have profound parallels.

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

When you picture a rivalry within college football, you likely envision intra-conference clashes between powerhouses (e.g., Ohio State-Michigan, Oklahoma-Texas, UCLA-USC); a good deal even possess trophies associated with the game, like the HAT given out in Northwestern-Illinois. If another idea came to mind, it was presumably a clash that pits teams against one another, as it has for decades (see: USC-Notre Dame, Clemson-South Carolina, Nebraska-Oklahoma).

Superficially, Duke-Northwestern would not fit such criteria. The two are in distinct conferences and do not have nearly a century worth of history, let alone records filled with names in college football lore.

Recency, though, would beg to differ.

Since 2015, NU and DU have squared off five times, with 2022 marking the sixth meeting in the last eight seasons. Moreover, the schools will duel in 2023 and 2024, alternating between Ryan Field (or ultimately a professional Chicago sports venue) and Wallace Wade Stadium. In layman’s terms, that’s getting an up-close-and-personal look at a team, its culture and its very identity in most years than not.

Frequency is not just the main draw in dubbing Duke-Northwestern a “rivalry,” though. Another key factor is the close nature of the games and series.

With a victory last September, the Blue Devils pulled ahead in the all-time record, earning an 11-10 mark that spans from 1985 until present day. Duke has prevailed in the last three contests against NU, but the ‘Cats mirrored that stretch with wins in 2008, 2015 and 2016.

Duke began its history with Northwestern by starting 7-2, taking each of the inaugural six meetings. But the Wildcats rallied by roaring to five straight wins from 1999-2003. When one jabs, the other counters.

An added layer to the tight nature of the historical record is how close the meetings between the academic blue bloods have been. This century, seven of the 11 games have been decided by 14 or fewer points. Arguably no game better represents little squad having any room for comfort more than last year, in which Duke amassed a 27-0 lead by the end of the second quarter and had to stave off a mighty purple rally to win 30-23.

Aside from the tendencies of their own matchups, there is an underlying charm and tenacity to both schools within the college football scene.

Northwestern has been the far more successful program in recent memory, its two division titles in the last four seasons trumping Duke’s one in 2013. Likewise, the Blue Devils have not had a winning season since 2018, while the Wildcats did so in 2020.

At the same time, neither program has ever formally won a national championship. Since 2006, Northwestern has had 11 players named All-American (including honorable mentions), while Duke has fielded nine. From 2015-21, the two schools have each generated two first-round picks in the NFL Draft.

And yet, both programs remain true to themselves: erudite on and off the field, where they have graduated at least 94% of their football classes every year since 2013-14. Underestimated, with neither having started the season ranked in the Associated Press poll since 2013, but scrappy enough to play up with competition. Successful at the next level, where Blue Devils and Wildcats suit up for noteworthy NFL teams as reliable, consummate professionals.

Of course, the coaching connections between the schools cannot be neglected. Duke OC Kevin Johns was a graduate assistant with Northwestern from 1999-2001 and coached the ‘Cats’ running backs (2004-05) and receivers (2006-10), plus held a number of other roles. Further, offensive line coach Adam Cushing served 15 years in Evanston, featuring 10 (2009-18) holding the same position for the Wildcats.

There’s little doubt the impression last year’s matchup against Duke left for this group of Wildcats. During Monday’s presser, cornerback Cam Mitchell made note of the losing streak. In fact, Ryan Hilinski went as far as to say that this year’s game “will have a different outcome.”

When Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats walk out of the tunnel tomorrow, they’ll be looking to do something they haven’t since 2016: defeat Duke. For Northwestern, the game means rejuvenating mojo at Ryan Field, exacting revenge for 2021 heartbreak and beginning its non-conference slate with a victory. For Duke, a chance for Mike Elko to upend a veteran on the opposing sideline with staffers who occupied the venue and start 2-0 in Durham.

Only time will tell whether either team posts a successful campaign in 2022. But no matter what transpires this fall, one thing is a certainty: Saturday will deepen the growing rivalry between the two intellectual leviathans and oft-overlooked, gritty programs.