As we inch closer to the start of the 2023 Northwestern football season, we continue to break down the faces the Wildcats will see across the field for their campaign. Today, we look at NU’s toughest non-conference opponent, and arguably a top 25 team in the nation: the Duke Blue Devils.
Returning Production: 71% overall (82% of offense, 60% of defense) (32/133 overall)
2022 Record: 9-4 (5-3 ACC)
Head Coach: Mike Elko (2nd Season)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and ESPN. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2023 SP+ Overall: 50th
2023 SP+ Offense: 45th
2023 SP+ Defense: 54th
Mike Elko’s first season in Durham could not have gone any better for the Blue Devils. In the first game of Elko’s tenure, Duke put up 500 yards of offense and blanked Temple 30-0. The following week, Duke headed north to Evanston to take on the Wildcats. The Blue Devils took a commanding 21-0 lead in the first quarter, but NU refused to go quietly. Evan Hull’s fumble at the half-yard line with seconds left in the game sealed the victory for Duke, lifting them over the ‘Cats for the second year in a row.
The Blue Devils cruised to another non-conference victory over North Carolina A&T, which set up a battle of undefeateds against 3-0 Kansas. Both sides traded punches throughout the game, but the Jayhawks prevailed 35-27, handing Duke its first loss of the season. The following week, the Blue Devils earned their first conference victory over Virginia, but struggled early in ACC play.
Duke attempted to make a comeback against Georgia Tech, scoring with eight seconds left in regulation to force overtime, but a Yellow Jacket field goal proved to be the difference maker, as the Blue Devils fell short, 23-20. The following week, Duke was on the receiving end of a last-second score that changed the outcome of the game. With the Blue Devils leading by four, North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye found Antoine Green in the endzone with just 16 seconds left, sending the Tar Heels home with a 38-35 win over their long-time rival.
After back-to-back heartbreaking losses, the Blue Devils bounced back with a 45-21 trouncing against Miami, and staved off a Boston College comeback to hold on to a 38-31 win. Returning to Durham, Duke picked up a 24-7 victory over Virginia Tech, putting itself in contention for the ACC Championship game. However, the Blue Devils fell behind to Pitt, and a failed two-point conversion with 47 seconds left in the fourth quarter left Duke just short of a comeback. Elko and Co. had lost another one-possession game, 28-26.
In the final regular season game, the Blue Devils once again found themselves locked in a tight contest with Wake Forest. Trailing for most of the final frame, Duke finally found itself on the positive side of a fourth-quarter comeback, taking the lead with just over two minutes to play. The defense held on for a 34-31 victory, and Duke went bowling for the first time since 2018.
In the Military Bowl, the Blue Devils took on UCF and dominated as the game went on. They forced two turnovers, scored twice in the last two minutes before halftime and cruised to a 30-13 bowl win to close out Elko’s inaugural campaign in Durham.
Returning 82% of its production, Duke’s offense will be one of the premier attacking units in the nation. Riley Leonard will once again be under center for the Blue Devils, looking to build off a strong 2022 season. Leonard completed 64% of passes last season, averaged 228.2 yards per game and tossed 20 touchdowns. The rising junior only threw six interceptions, putting him in the top 25 of all quarterbacks in college football. Leonard also added nearly 700 yards and 13 TDs on the ground, showing his ability to be a true dual-threat quarterback. To put it frankly, Leonard is going to be one of the best quarterbacks in college football this year. He sees the field very well but is also extremely elusive and hard to bring down.
As well as bringing its QB back, Duke returns both of its top targets from a year ago. Both Jalon Calhoun and Jordan Moore are back in Durham, and look to improve from the already impressive numbers in 2022. The duo combined for 122 catches, 1,529 yards and nine touchdowns, Both have tremendous speed and can run the route tree extremely well. All in all, the Blue Devils’ receiving corps is a nightmare for opposing secondaries and defensive coaches.
Duke also brings back its three-headed monster of a backfield from last season: Jordan Waters, Jaylen Coleman and Jaquez Moore. The group combined for 304 touches, 1,585 yards and 17 touchdowns. It did not matter who had the ball: the Blue Devils were going to move the pile and run the opponents into the ground.
With all of its major pieces back, Duke’s offense should not miss a beat from where it left off last season. This offense can attack from all areas on the field, keeping defenses on their heels for all 60 minutes. If you are a betting person, take the Blue Devils over in every game because they can flat-out score.
Although they were led by a defensive-minded head coach, the Blue Devils found themselves in multiple shootouts last season. Duke found itself just inside the bottom half of teams in yards allowed, but finished inside the top 35 in points allowed in the 2022 season. The Blue Devils got after quarterbacks well last season, racking up 36 sacks, 29 QB hits and 167 pressures. Duke also had 70 tackles for losses, so the Blue Devils were constantly sending opponents backward. The Blue Devils love to get the entire defense involved in the pass rush, evidenced by defensive back Brandon Johnson being tied for the most sacks on the team with 5.5.
Duke’s defense also did a phenomenal job of taking away the football. The Blue Devils fell on 16 out of 24 fumbles last season and added 10 interceptions as well, putting their total turnovers gained in the nation’s top 10 in the nation. Duke had contributions from top to bottom in creating turnovers, with multiple players having takeaways in their stat sheet.
There is still room for improvement for the Blue Devils’ defense, but they have the tools to play complimentary football to a dominant offense. If Duke can hold teams to fewer than four scores, its offense can carry them over the finish line.
Three Players to Watch
QB Riley Leonard
Leonard is one of the country’s premier dual-threat quarterbacks heading into the 2023 season. He is one of two quarterbacks to have 20+ passing touchdowns and 13+ rushing touchdowns last season, joining Oregon’s Bo Nix. For a quarterback, No. 13 loves to lower the boom as a runner. He understands the zone scheme, but once he gets around the edge and into the open field, there is no catching him. However, unlike most mobile quarterbacks, Leonard has a great pocket presence; he knows when to step up in the pocket and let it rip. He has great touch on the ball and fits throws into tight windows constantly. His footwork is clean and the zip off the ball is phenomenal. The more of his tape I watch, the more impressed I am.
Leonard is one of my sneaky Heisman candidates for 2023 because he has all the traits to light college football on fire this season. With his entire cast of weapons back and another year of chemistry under their belts, Leonard will take a big step forward from an already tremendous 2022 campaign.
DL DeWayne Carter
The senior captain for the Blue Devils is a force to be reckoned with in the trenches. Carter was named preseason First-Team All-ACC by a multitude of publications and was named to the Lott IMPACT Trophy Watch List. In his career, he has recorded 85 tackles, with a quarter going for negative yards, and 11 sacks. In 2022 alone, he had 11 TFLs and 5.5 sacks, leading Duke in both categories. He has forced seven fumbles during his tenure in Durham and recovered three of them. Carter received an 86.3 PFF defensive grade last season.
He is an offensive lineman’s nightmare. At 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, he can bully interior linemen with a pure bullrush, using his length to create separation and get to the quarterback. Expect No. 90 in blue to see double-teams on most snaps because that is the only way to slow him down.
OL Graham Barton
When you have such a high-powered offense, protection up front is key to being successful. Luckily for Duke, it has an absolute star in Barton protecting Leonard’s blind side. He played nearly every snap last season and did not flinch. According to PFF, in 896 plays last year, Barton only allowed two sacks and eight hurries. His play earned him First-Team All-ACC honors for 2022. It will be tough sledding for pass rushers all season, and Leonard will have plenty of time to go through his reads and find the open receiver down the field.