Advance Scouting: Duke
A week after a heartbreaking 9-7 loss to Illinois State, Northwestern will host their first night game of the season against Duke, another Power-5 conference team that was upset at home Saturday.
The Blue Devils dropped a 24-14 decision to Wake Forest in Durham after taking a 7-0 lead early, their first loss in the annual matchup since 2011. The game was largely decided on the ground, where Wake Forest out-rushed Duke 239-37.
The loss is a worrisome sign for a Duke team that has become a perennially strong team under coach David Cutcliffe after decades of mediocrity. The Blue Devils have gone to a bowl game four years in a row and went 8-5 with a Pinstripe Bowl win over Indiana in 2015, despite losing 19-10 to Northwestern early in the season.
The Cats will square off against Duke this year at perhaps a critical moment for both teams — NU attempting to right the ship after a disastrous start to the season, and Duke seeking to avoid a similar situation as the Cats.
Duke’s biggest strength: The pass defense that essentially shut down NU last season returns almost all of its key players — except for star safety Jeremy Cash, gone to the NFL — and has gotten off to a great start to 2016.
Duke held Clayton Thorson to just 70 yards and two interceptions on 9-of-23 passing last September, and only a Solomon Vault kick return touchdown and 55-yard Warren Long run got the Cats into the end zone.
The unit ultimately didn’t have the best of seasons — they ranked 81st in opponent pass efficiency — but they’ve looked much-improved through the first two weeks this autumn.
A group of four seniors (cornerbacks DeVon Edwards and Breon Borders and safeties Corbin McCarthy and Deondre Singleton) held FCS team N.C. Central to 7-of-25 passing for 74 yards and an interception, then Wake Forest to 9-of-16 passing for 150 yards and another interception.
Duke’s biggest weakness: The offensive and defensive lines have been an issue for Duke, as they have for NU.
The Blue Devils’ defensive front was destined for a rebuilding year: four of the top five tacklers from 2015 graduated, with only tackle A.J. Wolf returning. Wake Forest gashed the defense for 239 total yards, including a huge performance by running back Cade Carney, who carried 17 times for 108 yards (6.4 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns.
Of even greater concern has been the offensive line.
Duke managed only 37 yards on 30 carries against Wake Forest, and quarterback Daniel Jones was sacked five times. New starters Zach Baker and Austin Davis are struggling to develop chemistry with the rest of the unit.
This could be exactly the matchup that the Cats need to regain some confidence in their own lines, which senior guard Connor Mahoney said “got (their) butts kicked” against Illinois State.
Duke’s biggest question: Can redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones replace injured senior Thomas Sirk’s production and leadership?
The Blue Devils were dealt a tremendous blow before the season even started when Sirk, a senior, tore his Achilles for the third time in his collegiate career in practice and was ruled out for the season. Sirk lead the team in both passing and running last season.
Jones was sheltered in the opener against N.C. Central before being forced to throw it 48 times against Wake Forest, with some but not a ton of success. He also ran it 19 times for only a net of six yards, including sacks.
Duke isn’t a team with a robust crop of dangerous running backs, so multidimensional effectiveness from the quarterback position is necessary for their offense to function. The jury is still out on whether or not Jones can provide that.