Duke must avoid déjà vu against Northwestern
Posted September 6
Durham, N.C. — Duke's 60-7 win against NC Central introduced (redshirt) rookie running back Brittian Brown to Blue Devils fans. The dominant season-opener also gave David Cutcliffe's crew an opportunity to break in a slew of talented freshmen and young players, including playing a program-high 10 true freshman against the Eagles.
But the Northwestern (1-0) team that enters Wallace Wade Saturday isn't quite making the same introductions for new Wildcats. The Big 10 team's roster is much the same as the ones that beat Durham's teams each of the last two times the teams played. But the Wildcats "may well be the best Northwestern team," Duke's played according to Cutcliffe.
"Starting with their defense, they're physical and experienced," he said. "They've got DBs back in the right places, linebackers back and people up front. Flip to the offensive side and it starts with the running back and quarterback.
"I'm looking at the tape, I'm seeing déjà vu, but I'm seeing an even better team."
Pat Fitzgerald's team got to 2-0 in the meetings primarily by exploiting Duke (1-0) with explosive plays for score, all the while managing to minimize the Blue Devils' offense, allowing a combined 23 points in the last two games.
"We've just got to finish drives," said wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd. "We want to be more aggressive, take some more shots (downfield) -- things I think we will do. We're so much better at this point than we were when we played them at the second game last year."
A year of experience with Daniel Jones as the Blue Devils enables that more aggressive offense that the team feels it will need Saturday. Cutcliffe's team still scored the most points any Duke team ever has under the tenth-year head coach in the opener, that helps add confidence too.
The Blue Devils on defense doesn't have it as easy. They'll have to contain returning quarterback Clayton Thorson (who threw three touchdowns against Duke last season, cashing in on 26-, 44- and 58-yard passes for points) and running back Justin Jackson (who rushed for 108 yards vs. the Blue Devils in 2016).
"One guy is not necessarily going to bring (Jackson) down," cornerback Bryon Fields said, emphasizing that Jackson's ability heightens the importance of form tackling.
Those long TDs left a memory with Fields, too.
"We have to hug these receivers up tightly," he said. "(Thorson) can make all these throws, so we have to play these guys tight when we're in man coverage. We have to give them different looks and make it tough on them when we're in zone."
Forcing the tougher throws is the best bet for Duke's defense for limiting those big plays in order to keep its own offense in the game. But the redshirt senior explains that defensively, everything has to be improved year over -- understanding Northwestern's offense, understanding its own game plan, communication and tackling -- in order to avoid falling to 0-3 against the Wildcats.
"We understand that Northwestern has gotten the best of us in the past couple of years, so that's definitely some motivation for us," Fields Jr. said. "We've got to carry that into the week(end)."