With many analysts around the country touting Northwestern as a sleeper team in the Big Ten West, the Wildcats entered the season feeling very confident. But midway through the fourth quarter of the opening game, Northwestern found itself down at home to a Nevada team that most have pegged for the bottom half of the Mountain West standings. The Cats did, however, score twice late to come away with a 31-20 victory.
Northwestern’s week two opponent, the Duke Blue Devils, had a much easier time handling North Carolina Central. For the first time since 1949, Duke scored 60 points in a game, with 47 of those coming before intermission.
This week, Northwestern looks to improve upon last week’s sluggish effort, while Duke wants to continue its offensive momentum. The two programs have played 18 times since the series began in 1985, and the Wildcats have won ten of those matchups.
Northwestern at Duke
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Northwestern -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback battle
During Duke’s 4-8 2016 season, head coach David Cutcliffe found a quarterback in freshman Daniel Jones. Against FCS opponent North Carolina Central, Jones started his sophomore season off right, going 19-of-24 for 213 yards and two scores before exiting with the game well under control. Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson is a big reason for the high expectations in Evanston, and without his 352 yards passing and two fourth-quarter touchdown sneaks, the Wildcats could be entering the Duke game at 0-1. The quarterback who has the most success will go a long way in determining the winning team.
2. Getting Justin Jackson going
The Northwestern back rushed for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns last year and was an Athlon first-team preseason All-Big Ten selection. The senior from Carol Stream, Illinois, did go for 109 yards against Nevada, but it took him 30 carries to get to that number. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald would like to see Jackson, who was 14th in FBS last year with 16 rushes of 20-plus yards, get loose in the secondary a few times.
3. Duke pass defense
There is a lot of inexperience in the Duke secondary. North Carolina Central was not a team that could test the Blue Devils’ defensive backs, but Northwestern certainly can with Thorson throwing to receivers like Ben Skowronek and Macan Wilson. A consistent pass rush would aid the pass defense, and the Devils got a big performance on Saturday from true freshman Victor Dimukeje, who had a sack and a half and four total tackles.
It was nice for Duke that they essentially got to play an exhibition game before hosting Northwestern. It let them iron out some kinks and gain confidence following last year’s disappointing finish, while never actually being threatened. But threatened they will be this week with Northwestern coming to Durham. Northwestern, on the other hand, is already battle tested, though they certainly wish things had gone considerably easier in the first week of the new season. Jones will make plays through the air, but the combination of Thorson and Jackson will push Northwestern to a close victory.
Prediction: Northwestern 24, Duke 21
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.