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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Duke

Northwestern gets another crack at taking down the Blue Devils, but it’s going to be tougher than normal this year.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The ‘Cats pulled out a much-needed, feel-good victory at home last Saturday against UTEP. It was a win they needed to have in order to avoid another train wreck of a season, and they succeeded in emphatic fashion, downing the Miners 38-7.

Ben Bryant still wasn’t awesome under center, but he showed some promise and led Northwestern to a win. The rushing attack was also much-improved, which had a tremendous impact. Overall, it probably couldn’t have gone better for head coach David Braun and his team.

Now, we turn our attention to a matchup that has given NU fits in recent years. It’s the battle of the nerds this Saturday as the ‘Cats travel to play the No. 21 Duke Blue Devils. Here’s three reasons why Northwestern will pull off a season-altering upset and three reasons why fans should just focus their attention on Minnesota next week.

Why Northwestern will beat Duke

Cam Porter and the running game

Last week, I listed Porter and a rushing attack that struggled mightily in Week One as a reason the ‘Cats would lose to UTEP. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Northwestern gained 184 yards on the ground against the Miners and scored three touchdowns. Porter contributed 90 himself to go along with Jack Lausch’s 53 and A.J. Henning’s 35.

Don’t get me wrong, run blocking is going to be way tougher against Duke. It’s just flat-out better in pretty much every phase of the game than UTEP was. But Northwestern showed unquestionable improvement running the ball last weekend, and I’m betting it will continue in Durham.

It’s also hard to fully believe in Bryant’s ability to attack a good secondary through the air just yet. If Clemson could only manage 209 air yards, it feels like Bryant’s ceiling will be something close to what he did last week (11-for-17 for 116), and his floor closer to the numbers he put up in Week One. Duke has also allowed north of 120 yards rushing in both games so far this season (213 against Clemson and 126 against Lafayette). NU is going to need Porter and its offensive line to get something going.

The players must really want this one

You can talk numbers, matchups and strategy all you want, but at some point, this is football. Who plays harder and who’s more dialed in matters. In this case, the ‘Cats get to have the underdog mentality which is a positive thing. Especially given their recent history of losses against Duke, there should be a fire within every returning player Northwestern has.

Last year, Northwestern lost this game at home in brutal fashion when Evan Hull fumbled the game away on the 1-yard line. It sucked the air out of the team and they didn’t win another game for the rest of the season.

These players undoubtedly remember that turning point and are using it for motivation this week as they prepare to go up against a much stronger Duke team than they faced last season. It may not be enough to win, but effort will matter, and I don’t expect Northwestern to come out flat like it did against Rutgers.

A.J. Henning

I listed Henning as a reason Northwestern would beat UTEP as well, and while he wasn’t the most explosive ‘Cats player, he had another solid day. Henning collected 51 all-purpose yards, granted only 16 of those came through the air, but he’s emerged as an option out of the backfield as well.

I think this is the week he truly breaks out as a receiver. He’s had some impressive plays, but it hasn’t really carried over to stats just yet. He has just six receptions for 58 yards in two games thus far. But he’s a versatile player in a fledgling offense. It’s tough for him to get touches everywhere.

It’s that same versatility, however, that again makes him an X-factor against Duke. Whatever defensive weaknesses Northwestern is able to identify, Henning can play a part in exploiting. He’s not their only chance at scoring points, but if he’s catching passes, making explosive runs AND productively returning kicks?? He’s going to matter.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Duke

Riley Leonard

It isn’t every day in college football that you have to contend with a potential first-round pick in the NFL Draft. That’s what Northwestern will have to deal with against Leonard this Saturday. The junior is a big quarterback, standing at 6-foot-4 and weighing in at 212 pounds, and has been mocked as the third quarterback off the board this spring.

Now, he hasn’t been completely dominant in either game so far, but the first was against Clemson, and the second was a blowout win in which Duke started running the ball early. His 311 yards and one TD throw don’t seem reflective of a top five talent in college football, but don’t put too much stock into it.

The thing is, even if Leonard was overhyped heading into the season, he’s still going to be a huge problem for Northwestern. There’s no doubt that he’s a lot more talented than anyone in the ‘Cats’ QB room, and this young secondary is going to have its hands full trying to slow down Duke’s passing attack.

Jordan Waters

Yeah, unfortunately it isn’t just the passing attack Northwestern has to worry about. Waters is a senior running back who has already amassed 175 yards on the ground and scored three touchdowns. He’s averaging eight yards per carry, and has even sprinkled in some receiving numbers with 46 yards so far.

The Northwestern run stoppers looked way better against UTEP than they did against Rutgers, but this is by far the best team they’ve played all season. And, let’s not sugarcoat it, they were dreadful against the Scarlet Knights. If they look like that, or somehow worse, it’s going to be a long day trying to stop Waters.

Ben Bryant

Bryant is currently rocking a 58.5 completion percentage along with a 26.8 QBR (good enough for 125th in the nation). That isn’t good enough for a guy who was billed as a consistent starter who had had real success at Cincinnati.

He did get better against UTEP, but it’s really tough to take stock in a game against a low-level opponent at home, and he wasn’t even that good. He was just better than he was at Rutgers. Based on what we’ve seen so far, this is not a matchup in which Bryant will excel. I’m betting the moment will be too big and he’ll shrink back into Rutgers form.

There also just isn’t much working in Bryant’s favor. He’s got backup quarterbacks breathing down his neck. He has opposing defensive linemen literally breathing down his neck on every play. This literal and figurative pressure just seems like too much for him to overcome, especially on the road against a ranked team that’s currently on the come-up. Maybe he’ll prove me wrong, but it’s going to be tough.