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Northwestern Wildcats vs. Duke Blue Devils: Previews, Predictions and Prognostications

The Northwestern Wildcats passed a big test against Nevada in the opener. But the Duke Blue Devils bring a much sterner challenge and a team with the balance to test Northwestern.

Justin Jackson, Northwestern Wildcats, Ahki Muhammad, Nevada Wolf Pack

When: Sat. Sept. 9, 2017; 12 p.m. ET/11 a.m. CT
Where: Durham, N.C.; Wallace Wade Stadium (40,004)
TV: ESPNU
All-Time Series: Northwestern leads 10-8
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 24-13 (Sept. 17, 2016)
Line: Northwestern (-2.5)

Northwestern fans worried before Saturday’s opening game about which Northwestern team would show up. The poor start the Wildcats had last year was still fresh with everyone. And Pat Fitzgerald and his team made it clear they were going to focus on getting off to a fast start.

Trailing 17-7 at the half was not exactly the fast start everyone expected. Against the Nevada Wolf Pack, Northwestern struggled to get a consistent push on the offensive line to free up Justin Jackson. The defense struggled to create any type of pressure and the secondary was a bit lost going up against Nevada’s air raid offense.

The team got off to a slow start but came on strong in the second half. Clayton Thorson got hot finding receivers all over the place and sparking the comeback to win the game 31-20. The defense tightened up, giving up only three points coming off an interception from Clayton Thorson backed up against his end zone.

In all, it was an uneven and sometimes frustrating performance for Northwestern. But it was a solid win that showed plenty of growth and plenty of the potential everyone sees.

The Wildcats certainly felt good about getting the win and responding to some unexpected adversity to get to 1-0. No one is going to complain about that.

The challenge though gets tougher as Northwestern heads to Durham to take on Duke.

The Blue Devils are not quite at the heights they were a few years ago when it seemed Dave Cutcliffe had started a renaissance for the program. Even then, the Wildcats were still beating the Blue Devils when the two academically minded schools met.

Duke last week won a 60-7 laugher against NC Central. There probably is not much for the team to draw from here. But they have a much more dynamic offense than Nevada. It will be a challenge for Northwestern — not to mention dealing with the humidity of heading south.

The Wildcats will have to be sharper than they were last week. The linebackers will get their first big challenge with a strong running game and more balance coming from Duke. This game will be one where Northwestern can really begin showing the world if it will be the team to challenge Wisconsin in the Big Ten West after shaking out the cobwebs last week in the opener.

1 Burning Question: Can the secondary withstand injuries again?

Northwestern likes to claim it has a strong secondary. And when healthy, there is undoubtedly a lot of talent. That was the case last year too.

Week One took a toll on the Wildcats last year as Matthew Harris suffered a concussion and left the game. And then Keith Watkins III got hurt and was lost for the year. A week later Kyle Queiro broke his hand. The secondary got thin very quickly.

The same thing happened Saturday against Nevada. Marcus McShephard was injured in the court of the game. Keith Watkins III was ruled out for the season for the second year before the game. And then Brian Bullock was injured shortly after McShphard left. Northwestern played graduate transfer walk on Moe Almasri at cornerback throughout the fourth quarter last week.

All of a sudden, the Wildcats’ strongest defensive unit had been depleted. And now there seems like there is a sudden gap.

Northwestern still has stars in Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike in the secondary. But the lack of experience in the secondary was clear as Northwestern struggled with communicating switches against Nevada’s passing attack. There was a lot to figure out in the secondary.

And being down two cornerbacks is going to make it even harder. Both Bullock and McShephard were listed on Northwestern’s two deep this week. Bullock is officially still out while McShephard is questionable for now.

This is going to be a test for them once again. The Wildcats have to show they can withstand these injuries and still prosper.

2 Key Stats

28/38: Clayton Thorson was the undoubted star of Northwestern’s 31-20 win over Nevada in Week One. It was not merely the fact he had a hand in all four of the team’s scores. Thorson was simply magnificent, completing a career-high 28 passes and throwing efficiently, hitting eight different receivers. He made Northwestern’s questionable wide receivers look pretty dominant. Thorson also threw for a career high 352 yards. It was a big step for the junior quarterback.

47: Duke was just playing N.C. Central. Still, the Blue Devils hung 47 points in the first half. That is impressive no matter how it shakes out or happens. The Blue Devils scored a pick-6, recorded a safety, and threw an 81-yard touchdown pass to help produce all those points. The Bulldogs really had no chance from there. And with that, the starters got the second half off.

3 Key Players

Samdup Miller, Northwestern DE: The Wildcats did not create much of a pass rush against Nevada, allowing Ty Gangi to pick his passes and sit in the pocket. That might work OK for a first game, but it definitely allowed Nevada to get its pass game going. Joe Gaziano did a good job applying some pressure, but the team will need both defensive ends converging on the quarterback. That puts freshman defensive end Samdup Miller firmly in the crosshairs. The Wildcats will need him to be disciplined defending the run but need to see him get around the corner and put pressure on Duke quarterback Daniel Jones.

Brittain Brown, Duke RB: A week after facing a pass-happy Nevada team, Northwestern faces a team with a lot more balance. And a lot better of a running back. Brittain Brown rushed for 120 yards on 10 carries in a day of light work for the redshirt freshman. Now he will have the challenge of going up against a Big Ten defense, albeit one with some inexperience in the front seven. Northwestern will have to prepare for a more balanced team this week and that might change their aggression at the line. Stopping the run is always priority one.

Bennett Skowronek, Northwestern WR: Bennett Skowronek had one of the lowest moments of the game Saturday. With Northwestern driving to take a 14-0 lead, Skowronek fumbled in the red zone. Nevada went on to score and take the lead a few possessions later. It seemed to confirm the worries about Northwestern’s receivers. But Skowronek, like his team, did not stay down. From that point on, Skowronek was as sure-handed as any player on the field, catching a team-high eight catches for 123 yards. He became a favored target for Clayton Thorson. It would be hard to see Skowronek copy that performance again. But he will be a focus again.

Prediction: Northwestern 28, Duke 21

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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