Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Duke Blue Devils.
1. Will NU reach double-digit points?
Tim Balk (Half-full): Duke’s defense is respectable. And NU’s offense is scuffling beyond belief. But I still cannot see the Cats failing to reach 10 points again after scoring just seven against Illinois State.
For one, NU is due to get some points out of its defense and special teams. The Cats were often able to make up for poor offensive production with defensive scores and big plays in the return game last year. In their 19-10 win at Duke, Solomon Vault returned a kickoff for a touchdown and a Godwin Igwebuike fumble recovery set up the offense for an easy field goal. NU’s 19 points came in spite of one of the worst starts of Clayton Thorson’s career. It was a familiar theme throughout the 2015 season. This fall, the Cats’ defense has yet find the end zone and has made few big plays. It’s about time that changes.
Plus, NU’s offense is equally due to find something resembling a rhythm. After the ill-advised air attack backfired against Illinois State, look for NU to find some success with its bread and butter — the run game — against a Duke team that surrendered 239 yards on the ground last week against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons managed to score 24 against Duke. It’s not too much to expect NU to at least reach 10.
Max Gelman (Half-empty): The Wildcats are coming off a week in which they scored just seven points against an FCS defense and have only scored 28 points through their first two weeks. I find it hard to foresee a situation where NU manages to score more than 10 points.
While the special teams unit may be “due” to score some points, let’s not forget it also seems to hurt the Cats’ chances at scoring quite regularly. Kicker Jack Mitchell missed another field goal against the Redbirds last week and coach Pat Fitzgerald seemed extremely reluctant to try another field goal following the miss. If the Cats can’t kick, their drives will continue to stall around their opponents’ 35-40 yard lines.
But the biggest problem is NU’s offensive line — it’s a mess. Thorson was forced to throw 41 times against Illinois State, a career high, because the line couldn’t open any lanes for running back Justin Jackson (who is battling an injury). Until the O-Line improves, it will be extremely difficult for the Cats to put up 10 points.
2. Will the Cats keep Duke quarterback Daniel Jones to under 250 passing yards?
Gelman (Half-empty): Right now, the Cats’ secondary is a major concern. Starting cornerbacks Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins II are out, as well as safety Kyle Queiro, whose name popped up on the injury report out of nowhere.
Igwebuike is the only starter still healthy at this point. That leaves the rest of the secondary to be comprised of sophomore corner Montre Hartage, whose only two starts came in the first two weeks of this season filling in for Watkins II, redshirt freshman corner Trae Williams, who has never started a game before, and sophomore safety Jared McGee. The situation is so dire, that third-string quarterback and baseball pitcher Dan Kubiuk was taking reps at corner in practice this week.
What’s surprising about Duke is that Jones, as their backup quarterback, threw for 332 passing yards last week. Although that was against a bad Wake Forest team, it’s still cause for concern. The Cats’ secondary is at DEFCON 1 with all the injuries.
Balk (Half-full): Yes, with three out of its four projected opening week defensive back starters sidelined by injuries, the NU defensive secondary has to be a cause for concern at the moment. But, there’s plenty of reason to think NU will keep Duke to fewer than 250 passing yards. NU is giving up just a touch over 250 passing yards per game through two contests, but those numbers are inflated due to the fact that opponents have had far too many opportunities to sling it.
Opponents have dominated possession because of NU’s offensive trials and the lack of big defensive plays. So, naturally, they’ve picked up tons of yards. But the Cats’ front seven seemed to be finding its legs last week, even as the offense struggled through a nightmare. The progress is likely to continue against a Duke team with a subpar offensive line and a freshman quarterback.
Look for a strong performance from NU’s defensive line to keep Duke’s pass attack in check.
3. Over/Under 4.5 freshmen will trip while running onto the field?
Balk (Half-full): Obviously, you have to go under on this one. As far as I can recall, not a single freshmen tripped last year. The Class of 2019 was smooth and poised under pressure. And each class is supposed to be better, brighter (more athletic?) than the last, right?
Gelman (Half-empty): Almost everything else has gone wrong so far this year for the Cats, so why wouldn’t that extend to the Wildcat Welcome Dash? Under the bright lights of primetime, there will definitely be some jitters Saturday night. I can see about a dozen unlucky new students taking a fall while the Ryan Field crowd tries to hold in its laughter.