No offense to Army, but Duke steps up in class this Saturday, visiting Big 10 power Northwestern
Okay, maybe not Big 10 power in the Ohio State or Wisconsin sense of the expression.
But Pat Fitzgerald has turned the Wildcats into a solid, dangerous program. Northwestern has been to bowl games the last three seasons, eight times in the last decade.
Northwestern is a relatively-small, academically-elite private school surrounded by much larger state universities.
“We probably run into Northwestern [on the recruiting trail] more than Stanford because of the geographic location,” David Cutcliffe says. “We’re more effective than we’ve ever been in those recruiting battles. We do target some high-level academic young people but that goes along with high-character people. We practice against ourselves and we’re very similar on both sides of the ball. They’re good. That’s the bottom line.”
You might think Duke has an advantage playing Saturday, inasmuch as Duke opened on a Friday. But Northwestern opened last Thursday, a 31-27 road win over Purdue. Northwestern looked unstoppable early, leading 31-17 at the half, but were holding on for dear life at the end.
Cutcliffe has looked at the film and sees “the most athletic Northwestern team we’ve played. Athletic in both lines of scrimmage, certainly at linebacker and the secondary. Offensively, they always give you fits. They have a very talented running back and receivers and two quarterbacks who played well. I don’t know what to expect there.”
Cutcliffe always talks about Fitzgerald and his teams in complimentary terms like “disciplined,” “focused,” “and well-coached.”
The running back is Jeremy Larkin, a sophomore who rushed for 143 yards on 26 carries against Purdue.
One of the receivers is former Duke commit Flynn Nagel, although 6-4 Bennett Skowronek might be the bigger threat.
Veteran Clayton Thorson and junior T.J. Green split time at quarterback, Thorson recovering from off-season ACL surgery.
Cutcliffe says schematically Northwestern doesn’t change much when they switch quarterbacks.
Big 10 teams pride themselves on their physicality. Duke got high marks for dominating the lines of scrimmage against Army. But Cutcliffe says it might not be so easy against the guys in purple.
“These are going to be different physical people in every respect. They’re faster than Army, they’re bigger, they’re going to be stronger. It comes down to technique, leverage, hands, quick feet. When you’re playing equally gifted players, you have to find your edge in different places.”
Duke center Zach Harmon says Duke is ready for the challenge.
“These guys are big, heavy, physical guys, especially on the edge. The ends weigh a little more than what we usually see in the ACC. Keep the depth in the pocket, so DJ (Daniel Jones) can have time to throw. Expect physicality. Today was a very physical practice, so it just goes to show what we’re expecting from Northwestern. It’s not going to change anything in our offensive game plan; just concentrate on the physicality part. We’re going to focus on the run game, to keep them on their heels, to occupy their linebackers.”
Defensive end Victor Dimukeje likes a different word.
“We plan on playing as aggressive as possible. We played them last year, so we know what to expect. We just need to come out with as much aggression as last year.”
Northwestern can throw the ball and throw it well. Cutcliffe acknowledges that Duke did not do a good job of defending the pass against Army.
“Just eye discipline. We had some young people back there. You can’t lose your eye discipline. The next thing you know, someone is beyond you. That’s a good lesson in a win. You teach where you want your eyes. We’re not telling you to have eye disciple just because we like hearing ourselves talk. It’s every single play.”
Duke handled Northwestern easily last season, 41-17, piling up 538 total yards.
Could that be a disadvantage?
“I think that a big part of success in any business is ‘how do you stay hungry,’ Cutcliffe says. “That requires mental discipline and preparation. Our focus has still got to be on Duke.”
Cutcliffe also noted that Duke lost to at Northwestern two seasons ago and a lot of the same players who played in that game are still at Duke and haven’t forgotten.
“It’s become a bit of a rivalry.”
Cutcliffe says some reserves expected to play more than they did against Army and that he hopes to get more players on the field this weekend. But he noted “we don’t play people just to play them. You have to earn it.”
Wide receiver Jake Bobo, offensive tackle Casey Holman and defensive tackle Tahj Rice were the only true freshmen who played against Army. Twelve other Duke players made their first college appearance, including redshirt senior kicker, Colin Wareham, who went six-for-six.
The Northwestern game starts at 11 A.M. local time. Cutcliffe notes that Duke usually practices early and quipped that he “might let them sleep in a little bit” before the game.
But he says he likes the early start.
“It all goes around the pre-game meal. We try to eat our pregame meal three-and-a-half hours prior, so we won’t wake them up any earlier than we have to. But we’ll put them to bed a tad-maybe 45 minutes earlier. But when you can get up and eat the pregame meal and soon afterwards, you’re on the bus going to the stadium, that’s a really good feeling. We’re used to morning football, so, I’m excited about that.”
You didn’t actually miss last week’s injury report. The ACC has done away with them. Cutcliffe was a supporter but the mistrust in the ACC coaching community apparently runs deep.
That said, Cutcliffe says Duke did not suffer significant injuries last week.