DURHAM, N.C. – Coming off a 34-14 season-opening victory against Army West Point, the Duke Football team turns its attention to Northwestern. The Blue Devils have their first road test this weekend, taking take on the Wildcats on Saturday at 12 noon on ESPNU.
ONE IN THE WIN COLUMN
Duke captured its season-opening game for the seventh straight campaign, a first for the program since 1949-55. The Blue Devils have won seven or more consecutive season openers only three times in program history.
“It feels great,” sophomore defensive end Victor Dimukeje said of the victory. “We have the momentum right now and we’re ready to play the second game.”
Redshirt senior wide receiver Chris Taylor agreed with Dimukeje.
“It definitely feels good, especially starting the season off with a win,” Taylor said. “It was a tough game for us against Army [West Point] last year, so it feels good to get back.”
SHIFTING FROM ARMY WEST POINT TO NORTHWESTERN’S OFFENSE
The Blue Devil defense goes from facing a triple-option offense to Northwestern’s traditional scheme.
Head coach David Cutcliffe believes the preparation Duke did during preseason camp will come in handy against the Wildcats this week.
“Fortunately, we have practiced against ourselves all spring and our offense and defense is very similar to Northwestern’s,” he said. “We spent 17 days of our 25 allotted days prior to the first game working on standard offenses, so it shouldn’t be that big of an adjustment. Northwestern is good. That’s the bottom line.”
Last week against Purdue, Northwestern used a two-quarterback system with Clayton Thorson completing 16-of-26 passes for 172 yards and TJ Green connecting on seven-of-11 attempts for 63 yards.
“They threw it a little more with [Clayton] Thorson for obvious reasons,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s a veteran starter and a big 6-4 guy. But don’t think for a second that [TJ] Green can’t throw the football. We just have to go play, read the keys and pressure the quarterback for us to be successful.”
Dimukeje also believes a key will be pressuring whoever is taking snaps.
“They have a good quarterback returning from last year and they have a good running game, so we just have to find ways to get pressure on the quarterback and stop the run game like we did last year,” he said. “Their quarterback has an arm. We just have to get pressure on him as much as we can.”
A PHYSICAL GROUP EXPECTED FROM NORTHWESTERN
An ACC versus Big Ten football game will usually place a demand on physicality. The Blue Devils are expecting nothing different Saturday at Northwestern.
“They are going to be a lot bigger and more physical than a lot of opponents we’re going to face,” redshirt senior center Zach Harmon said. “We’re really not going to change anything in our offensive game plan. We’re going to key in on the physicality part. What it’s going to take is in our practice tomorrow in pads to keep that physical mentality going up through Saturday.”
Cutcliffe also noted the level of physical play that will be required from Duke on Saturday.
“They are going to be different physical people in every area,” he said. “They are faster, bigger and stronger than Army West Point. They are a similar program that is extremely well coached.”
A BALANCED OFFENSE FOR DUKE IN GAME ONE
During the win against Army West Point, the Blue Devils rolled to 197 passing yards and 184 rushing yards. The balanced attack is something Taylor was proud of.
“I think that’s the beauty of our offense,” he said. “Whether we hand it off or throw it, it can be a big play. We can have a big play through the air. Daniel [Jones] can keep it and run for a big gain. A defense will have guard everybody from the receivers, to the running backs, to our quarterback. I think it gives us a lot of options to be a really dominant offense.”
Harmon was proud of his offensive line for their work in allowing the unit to have such balance.
“The biggest key for me was how balanced we were,” Harmon said. “That started with the pass protection to give Daniel time. He was able to throw balls downfield and that was really able to keep Army’s defense on its heels. We gave Brittain [Brown] little slivers of a hole and you saw what he did. That was really good to see.”
LEADERSHIP HELPING BLUE DEVILS ALONG THE LINE
For the first time since 2009, Duke’s starting offensive line features three new starters with left tackle Christian Harris, Harmon, right tackle Robert Kraeling and right guard Rakavius Chambers. Harmon shifted from right guard, where he started the last two years, to center with Chambers taking his slot at guard.
Harmon spent part of last week mentally preparing his group for starting assignments. He was proud of the end result, especially from first-time starter Kraeling.
“[Robert Kraeling] played fantastic throughout the game,” Harmon said. “He [allowed one sack, but] cleaned that up the rest of the game. That’s just something that comes with experience. The more games he plays he’ll be able to keep that subconsciously in his head and not have to think about each play. We always say ‘next play, next play’ and don’t even really think about because if you dwell on that, it’s only going to go south for you.”
The group finished the contest against Army West Point allowing just one sack, committing zero holding penalties and only one false start infraction.
EXPECT MORE BLUE DEVILS TO PLAY AGAINST NORTHWESTERN
With Army West Point’s ball-control offense, Duke ran just 52 plays during the contest. A year ago against Northwestern, the Blue Devils totaled 104 total offensive plays in a 41-17 victory inside Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“Some of our players probably thought they would’ve played more than what they did,” Cutcliffe said of his offensive troops. “The thing our players have to realize, and I tell them this all the time, is you don’t just play a lot of people just to play them. You play people that have earned the opportunity to play and play well. I’m hoping that’s the case at the end of this week and we’re able to introduce more people in the game.”
SPECIAL TEAMS UNITS EXCEL IN OPENER
Fifth-year senior Collin Wareham made his Duke debut against Army West Point and converted all six placement kicks with two field goals and four extra points.
Wareham enters Saturday’s game tied with Andre Szmyt of Syracuse and Greg Huegel of Clemson for the most made field goals in the ACC. Wareham’s two field goals also are tied for the 12th most nationally.
In addition to the placement kicks, Brown is ranked second in the ACC in kickoff return average (29.00) while senior T.J. Rahming checks in third in punt return average (11.50).
On the defensive side of special teams, Duke senior linebacker Ben Humphreys blocked a 45-yard field goal try in the fourth quarter. The Black Knights failed to convert either field goal attempt.
The Blue Devils also rank 13th nationally in kickoff return defense after stopping Army West Point with a 14-yard return on its one runback.
“Kirk Benedict does a really good job,” Cutcliffe said. “We are very systematic. These guys have all been in our system. If they’re doing what’s expected of them and they’re called on, they should be outstanding at what they’re doing. Kirk is out there with them. He’s done an excellent job at bringing more intensity than we’ve ever had in the area of special teams.”
LOTS OF OPTIONS AT WIDE RECEIVER
During the season opener, redshirt junior wide receiver Aaron Young turned in a breakout performance with four receptions for a career-high 114 yards. Rahming led the group with five receptions, giving him eight consecutive games with three or more catches. He enters Saturday ranked second in career receptions among active players and fourth in receiving yardage.
Taylor is looking forward to watching his group develop throughout the season given its depth. Last fall, Taylor caught a 52-yard touchdown pass from Jones.
“We’re extremely deep at wide receiver this year,” Taylor said. “It has been one of the greatest things, especially for me, just being able to see the younger guys grow. When people are tired, we’re able to run gos for seven or eight plays in a row by rotating our receivers without any drop-off in production. We’re going to be able to open up the offense a little bit more, and I’m excited for that opportunity.”