Few would have expected Northwestern to be still searching for its first win of the season by the time Duke rolled into Evanston in Week 3, but here we are. The Wildcats lost a tough one in the opener against Western Michigan and then took a second straight loss at home against FCS member Illinois State. The Wildcats will have their work cut out for them as they try to get in the win column, because Duke is also looking to shrug off a somewhat surprising loss last weekend, against Wake Forest.
Duke at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Northwestern -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Duke and Northwestern combined for 21 points last week against Wake Forest and Illinois State
Neither team had much to speak about with their offense last week, but at least Duke offered a glimmer of hope. Quarterback Daniel Jones passed for 332 yards against the Demon Deacons last weekend, although he was picked off once late in the game to help seal Duke’s fate in Week 2. Duke had no running game to speak of, managing just 37 yards on 30 rushing attempts. Jones also scored two touchdowns on the ground for Duke.
Northwestern would have loved to have two touchdowns last week. The Wildcats were stuffed for just 277 yards of total offense against Illinois State. If Northwestern can’t run the football, the home team could be in big trouble. Clayton Thorson completed just 17 of his 41 pass attempts last week for 191 yards and a score, but Northwestern managed just 86 rushing yards, including 42 from Justin Jackson. Northwestern’s offense ranks 116th in the nation through two games.
2. Will Justin Jackson play?
By all accounts, it appears as though Northwestern fans should expect to see Jackson on the field this weekend. That is good news for the Wildcats, because he is one of the top running backs in the Big Ten and he can help give the offense a much-needed boost. Jackson was forced to leave last week’s game against Illinois State with a leg injury, but it was not believed to be serious. Jackson carried the football 12 times before having to sit for the rest of the game early in the fourth quarter last weekend.
Last year, at Duke, Jackson rushed for 120 yards in a 19-10 victory for the Wildcats.
3. Northwestern may have to play like a desperate team
And that may actually prove to be good news for David Cutcliffe and his Blue Devils, if Duke’s defense plays disciplined. Because Northwestern has slumped out to an 0-2 start, the pressure to make some big plays and take some chances may be floating on the Wildcats' sideline, especially if it looks like they cannot shake Duke. That could lead to a play or two Duke may not be expecting. If Duke stays calm and keeps its wits when Northwestern does try catching the Blue Devils napping, then Duke could gain an edge.
Northwestern is not going to lose a third straight home game to start the season without going down swinging. Duke has the offense to once again push Northwestern’s defense to the limit with Daniel Jones passing and Jela Duncan capable of making plays on the ground. Duke has averaged roughly 150 more yards of offense per game than Northwestern, but the Wildcats have arguably played a tougher schedule. Will that matter? Pat Fitzgerald has kept his head held high through a very disappointing 0-2 start, so trust he will have the Wildcats to break out of this slump before heading to Big Ten play.
Prediction: Northwestern 23, Duke 20
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.