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Next Up For Football: Northwestern

Time: 8:00 pm || TV: Big Ten Network/Watch ESPN || Venue: Ryan Field

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Wake Forest v Duke
DURHAM, NC - SEPTEMBER 10: DeVon Edwards #27 of the Duke Blue Devils strips the ball away from quarterback John Wolford #10 of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Saturday night, Duke travels to Northwestern for the second half of a home-and-home. Duke lost last year’s matchup, 19-10 in Durham. As the N&O pointed out, Duke has won 13 out of 16 road games since 2013, which is about as good as one can ask for.

Luckily for the Blue Devils, who are coming off an embarrassing loss to Wake Forest, the Northwestern Wildcats are coming off two embarrassing losses: 22-21 to Western Michigan in the Week 1 home opener, and a 9-7 loss to FCS Illinois State last week.

In a way, Northwestern feels a lot like Wake – a sub-par offense that needs to be bailed out by a strong defense. Giving up nine points to an FCS team is thoroughly decent, but scoring only seven is pretty much unacceptable. Northwestern fans, writers, and coaches seem to be blaming their struggles on poor offensive line play, which causes problems in the passing and running game. Because Justin Jackson is a very good running back, he has been able to essentially keep producing at the same level as 2015 and 2014, but he needs help and isn’t getting any right now. Again, for the team to only have one score against an FCS defense is truly awful.

Duke had a very excellent half of offense against NCCU, and only a few decent drives against Wake Forest. That inconsistency means we don’t really know what to expect from the offense on Saturday. What we do know is that the run game struggled against Wake, and Jones was sacked five times, so the offensive line will have to show some improvement if Duke is to avoid last week’s offensive ineptitude. Admittedly, a few of those sacks were caused by Jones holding onto the ball for too long, which is a product of inexperience. At the very minimum, we know Jones will have more experience against Northwestern than he did against Wake.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Safety Kyle Queiro is out for this game, which further weakens a secondary that was already inexperienced and banged-up. Jones got into a rhythm with the short passing game on a few drives (until Wake’s injuries ended them), and also showed he could make accurate deep passes. In any case, given the state of Northwestern’s defense (light on the secondary, still good in the front seven), throwing the ball 48 times may be a good strategy on Saturday, instead of a last resort. Still, with the inconsistency we’ve seen, the penalties, and fumbles, it’s fair to say that Northwestern’s defense has an advantage over the Duke offense.

On the other hand, NU has a weaker offense than Wake Forest in a couple ways. Primarily, they don’t have a dynamic dual-threat QB like Hinton, who really had a breakout performance against Duke. The Wildcats have struggled this year moving the ball through the air, and as a result have become somewhat one-dimensional. Actually, Northwestern has struggled moving the ball, period. According to ESPN’s Brian Bennet, over 38% of Northwestern’s plays have resulted in zero or negative yardage. Northwestern hasn’t shown any real ability to create those dynamic opportunities like Hinton did in the second half last week. We should see the Duke defense strongly commit to stopping the run, daring QB Clayton Thorson to make plays with his arm.

The weakness of Duke’s D-line may be offset by Northwestern’s poor offensive line, which would in theory allow the excellence of the Duke secondary to control the game. Duke’s defense has the advantage over the Northwestern offense right now.

Given that the two squads are fairly evenly matched, special teams will play a huge role in what is likely to be a low-scoring, low-offense game. If Devon Edwards, Shaun Wilson, or Ryan Smith can break off a return touchdown, that will be a game-changer. If A.J. Reed misses two field goals again (or even one), it’ll be a long day for the Blue Devils.

The simplest analysis one can make about this game is that Duke is a better team than Illinois State, which would establish them as the favorite. Unfortunately, Duke is also a better team than Wake Forest, and we saw how that went. However, due to Northwestern’s own struggles, a win is very possible.