The Duke Blue Devils (ACC) and the Northwestern Wildcats (Big Ten) play in different conferences but they’ve formed a non-conference rivalry with one another, especially in the 21st century. These two schools, who aren’t exactly football power houses, have played each other 19 times since 1985. But since 2000 the Wildcats have gone 7-2 against the Blue Devils, they’ve won the last three games at Northwestern’s Ryan Field, and have outscored Duke 258-175 in the process. And with this week being NU’s home opener, the numbers are definitely on their side.
At the same time, Duke hammered the Cats’ 41-17 on their home field last year as Blue Devils quarterback Daniel Jones put on a show. Heading into this year’s meeting, both schools are coming off of strong victories.
Northwestern started the season last week with a rare conference road game at Purdue. Sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin (26 carries, 143 yards, two TDs) and the Wildcat defense (five sacks, three INTs) were the main catalysts that helped Northwestern hold off a late rally by the Boliermakers to walk out of Ross Ade Stadium with a 31-27 win. Duke on the other hand relied on Jones’ dual-threat skills as he accounted for 240 total yards and two touchdowns to beat Army 34-14 at home.
This is the start of a three-game homestand for Northwestern while Duke is starting a set of back-to-back road games before returning home to begin ACC play. This will be the most difficult non-conference game for both schools.
Duke at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Northwestern -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Northwestern’s defense vs. Daniel Jones
In last year’s meeting in Durham, Jones threw for 305 yards, ran for an additional 108 (game high for both categories), accounted for four total touchdowns, and averaged more than six yards per play both passing and rushing. The Wildcats' complete focus on defense should be on Jones and force Duke’s other offensive players to try and beat them. Jones should look for zone blitzes and increased gap control by Northwestern’s front seven. Duke tailors its offense to Jones’ abilities and if the Wildcats limit his mobility, his best bet will be quick outlet passes to keep the NU defensive line at bay.
2. Duke’s defense vs. Jeremy Larkin
Larkin’s 143 rushing yards against Purdue were the first time that a Northwestern running back ran for 140 or more in a season opener since Tyrell Sutton (144) in 2008 against Syracuse. Larkin’s biggest contributions came on the Wildcats’ final drive of the game last week in which he ran the ball seven times for 40 yards as part of a 14-play, 46-yard drive that ate up the final 7:57 to give Northwestern the win. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry and his longest run of the game was 46 yards. His ability to grind out yards will be key in keeping Jones and the Duke offense off of the field. Expect Larkin to get another 20-plus carries.
The Blue Devils will try and shut Larkin down and force Northwestern to fully rely on its passing game to move the ball. With Duke ranking in the top 20 nationally in pass defense last year and the Wildcats employing two quarterbacks, an ineffective Larkin would allow the Blue Devils defense to focus on what it does best.
3. Northwestern’s quarterback situation
Senior Clayton Thorson took the field as expected in the opener against Purdue, but he only took part in about half of the Wildcats' 79 total offensive plays. Thorson split time with junior TJ Green and finished the game 16-for-26 for 172 yards and three rushes for eight yards. Green had 63 yards through the air on seven completions (11 attempts) and also had a rushing touchdown. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has said from the moment Thorson was cleared after last season’s ACL injury that he would be cautious with his star quarterback and he has done just that. With Duke being one of the better pass defenses in the country, it’ll be interesting to see how Fitzgerald employs his signal-callers on Saturday.
Northwestern proved last week that its offense can function without Clayton Thorson under center. The Wildcats have a strong running game and one of the better offensive lines in the nation. The trick for Northwestern on Saturday will be containing Daniel Jones and not let him take over the game as he did last year. NU has this one figured out and will push its winning streak, which started last October, to 10 games.
Prediction: Northwestern 31, Duke 24
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.