Game Preview


NU at Duke
Wallace Wade Stadium
Saturday, Sept. 6.  6:00 p.m. CDT
TV: None
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Duke
by Jonathan Hodges

The story lines run deep for this game, as I discussed earlier this week in my column about the matchup between Northwestern (1-0, 0-0) and Duke (1-0).  Last week, NU soundly defeated Syracuse at home by a score of 30-10 while the Blue Devils defeated a solid I-AA/FCS team (the James Madison Dukes, what a coincidence) by a rather large margin of 31-7 as they packed the house for their opener.  This is a game that both teams believe that they can win and need to win in order to have a successful season, so expect a tough battle on the field come Saturday evening.

One X-Factor for the game will be the potential arrival of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Hanna that is projected to make landfall between Florida and the Carolinas sometime Friday.  Thus far it has been an unpredictable storm and although it should be further north by the time 7PM ET Saturday rolls around, nobody knows for sure - and if there is a lot of rain in the area the field condition may be questionable.  Although the situation is changing constantly, NU and Duke appear to be sticking with the plan to play the game as scheduled.  So, depending on when and where the storm makes landfall the conditions at game time may make the game interesting.

Line: Northwestern by 6.5.

Who Should Win: Northwestern.  Despite the home loss to Duke last year, and improvement in the Blue Devil squad coupled with a new coach (Cutcliffe) and home field advantage, NU has more talent in all 3 aspects of the game.  If the defense played like it did for much of the Syracuse game and gets a boost from the addition of Gill, if the offense gets the ball moving like it did in the second half, and if the special teams executes like they did, the 'Cats should come away winners.  Yes, this game will be a test with NU facing a decent offense who did well in week one and a strong and talented defensive front, but Northwestern should have the upper hand.

Upset Factor: Just look at last year's game.  Duke wanted to win that game more and their defensive front pushed them over the edge at the end of the game by vaporizing NU's multiple chances in the red zone late.  Thaddeus Lewis is an elusive QB who can pick apart a defense if given the opportunity.  And don't forget about Tropical Storm/Hurricane Hanna that could dump a lot of rain on the region up to and including Saturday night - many say that horrible weather is the "great equalizer" in football.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Duke Defense: Northwestern finally got the offense churning out yards and points in the second half against Syracuse after some miscues early on.  The offensive line definitely proved itself against slightly lesser competition, but now must face a hungry front 7 that includes a lot of talent.  Look out for seniors Respress and Akinbiyi on the line along with star LBs Tauiliili and Rey.  The DL caused big problems for NU last year with 2 sacks and 8 QB hurries, with 4 of those hurries attributed to DE Oglesby, who will be back this year.  Tauiliili had an INT with a 24 yard return and Rey added 4 PBUs last year as well.  So look for a lot of action out of the DL and LBs.  The secondary, meanwhile, is a little younger and more suseptible to attack, with 2 juniors and 2 seniors starting; senior S Williams had a solid game last year, junior CB Wright had an INT against the 'Cats, and the other starters Gainey and Marshall saw playing time against NU.  This will be a tough defense for NU to face that comes in with a good bit of experience and obvious success against NU.  The Wildcats will counter with an attempt to establish a running game like they did against Syracuse while protecting CJ in the pocket - which will be more of a challenge this game.  Duke also runs a no-huddle offense this year under new coach Cutcliffe so their defense won't be as surprised against NU's attack.  The performance of NU's OL will dictate how successful the 'Cats will be in this game as they contain Duke's pass rush and establish running lanes.  Regarding the status of the starters for the NU OL, Mattes may be held out for a second consecutive week due to a sprained knee which would give Taylor another start at RT (he has done a nice job in practice and the first game).  If Mattes does play, expect to see Taylor take some playing time, if not the start, away from Belding at RG.  A key change in this year's game will be the availability of Sutton and a more balanced offensive attack from McCall, which should help hold off the Blue Devil pass rush.  The weather conditions may play a role here, but NU needs to effectively run its offense without turnovers and miscues in the red zone, and a solid run game will go a long way to accomplish those goals.

Northwestern Defense/Duke Offense: QB Lewis leads the Duke attack and is flanked by RB Harris who added some nice runs in week 1 for the Blue Devils.  The top receiver is undoubtedly Eron Riley who took care of business in week 1; he has next-level potential.  Last year, Lewis went wild completing 19 of 23 passes and completing 15 in a row at one point, throwing all 3 Duke TDs for the game, and he also provides a running threat for Duke.  Duke runs a no huddle this year, like NU, which was initiated by Cutcliffe who comes in with a wealth of offensive coaching experience.  Definitely don't count them out offensively, and they will provide a much bigger test for the NU defense than Syracuse last week.  Helping here will definitely be the return of DT Gill for NU, who was suspended for last week's game, who was Northwestern's defensive practice player of the week and, according to Fitz, is hungry to return to the playing field.  Apparently he gave new NU C Burkett a big test during practice which helped come game time.  The NU defense put some solid pressure up front against Syracuse and the DBs performed well, which they will have to repeat this week to give NU a winning chance.  Not only must the NU D contain Lewis and a bigger running threat from both him and the RB, but also try to contain Riley with safety help and some solid coverage by McManis, who will have to step up in this new defensive scheme. 

Special Teams: Northwestern took care of business rather efficiently last week, led by the leg of Demos who stuck Syracuse deep in their own end every time he punted; the only beneficial field position for SU came on the Sutton fumble to start the 2nd half.  Villarreal hit all 4 of his extra point attempts, and Demos did an excellent job booting kickoffs deep (or kicking high to allow kick coverage to get down the field).  Credit the coverage teams, featuring some young speedsters (Mabin, Arnold, Bolden, Persa) for excellent tackling and keeping Syracuse to low return numbers.  This must continue going into this week to give the NU defense a good starting position.  Meanwhile, kickoff returns were solid with Simmons handling the ball, while punt returns didn't provide much of a boost - although there was maybe only one or two returnable punts.  NU must utilize the speed available on the roster in these situations to set up the offense.  On the Duke side, their biggest question mark is FG kicking - last season HC Roof held open tryouts for a kicker mid-season - although they did hit the one attempt against JMU in week one (Maggio was 4/4 on XPs and 1/1 on FGs on the day).  NU's FG kicking is a little uncertain despite the return of Villarreal due to some misses during scrimmages in Kenosha, but at elast there is experience to fall back upon.  If the game is indeed a close slugfest, special teams may very well determine the outcome of the game (even more if the game is in sloppy conditions).

- Duke leads the all-time series 8-7, which only started back in 1986.  Duke and Northwestern don't have any games currently scheduled following this season.
- NU P Stefan Demos was named as the Big Ten's special teams player of the week for last week's performance which included hitting 6/6 punts inside the 20, with 3 inside the 10.
- Duke HC Cutcliffe was OC at Tennessee when they beat NU in the Jan. 1, 1997 Citrus Bowl (led by Peyton Manning).
- In 19 career starts, CJ Bacher has thrown for more than 200 yards in all but one occasion (2007 vs. OSU, when he threw for 120).
- Due to a Cubs game conflict, the game will be heard online at wgnradio.com and over the air in Chicago on 1160 AM (WYLL); as usual, the game can be heard on WNUR at 89.3 FM in the Evanston area or online at wnur.org.
- The game will not be televised on TV, but a video feed will be available on ACC Select (which can be accessed through the ACC website, theacc.com) for a $5.95 event viewing fee.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: Out: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), OT Mattes (out according to official injury report, sprained knee), WR Yarbrough (questionable), LB McNaul (questionable, leg), DL Mafuli (questionable, knee), LB Jeske (questionable), WR Frymire (questionable).

Duke: C Lind (questionable, shoulder), TE King (out for season, collarbone), RB Boyette (out for season, knee).

The only significant injury on either team will be the availability of Mattes for NU, although with Taylor playing very well at multiple positions on the OL in camp and at RT last week, the 'Cats should have a huge drop-off if he's not ready to go.  If he is, it ads valuable depth and experience to the lineup and Talyor will definitely push Belding at RG.

Prediction: Northwestern 27 - Duke 20

The conditions may very well determine if this game is a low-scoring battle in the trenches (in the case of rainy and/or blustery conditions) or a higher-scoring game with a good amount off offense generated by both Duke (with the Lewis to Riley combo) and NU (with CJ, Sutton, and company).  I believe that the NU defense is truly improved over last season while the Blue Devil defense will present a challenge to the 'Cats, so I wouldn't expect a shootout either way.  If Northwestern excecutes they way they did in week 1, they should definitely win this game.  As others have noted, in last year's game Duke didn't exactly overwhelm the stats - in fact NU seemed to have an edge in most, if not all, major statistical categories.  But on the plays that mattered, Duke made things happen and NU didn't - the 'Cats were called for numerous drive-ending (when on offense) or drive-sustaining (while on defense) penalties; Duke scored in the red zone while NU didn't; and at the end of the game the Blue Devils showed that they wanted to win.  This year, I believe that Fitz and his assistants will have NU focuses and fired up to win this game - and it's not like the players need a lot of outside motivation.

Expect to see Duke hang around for at least half of the game in a lower scoring affair than one may think, but for the NU defense's improvement to pay dividends in the end and, once again, the NU offense to wear away at Duke and make things happen with the running game at the end.  This will be a relatively large physical test for the OL and will be a test of will for the entire Northwestern team, but I anticipate them to succeed.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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