Football: Northwestern gets third chance to contain Daniel Jones’ Duke offense


Daily file photo by Leeks Lim

Northwestern defenders sack Duke quarterback Daniel Jones during the two teams’ 2016 meeting. Jones then torched the Wildcats in 2017 and will start Saturday’s game in Evanston.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


Duke quarterback Daniel Jones ran all over Northwestern last year, scrambling for 108 yards and two touchdowns (along with 305 yards and two more touchdowns through the air) in a performance of the Trace McSorley variety.

Less than a month later, the Wildcats faced McSorley himself — and despite losing the game, dominated the Penn State dual-threat superstar to the tune of minus-1 yard on 16 runs.

Which NU defense shows up against Jones this year could determine the outcome on Saturday: The one that “played like garbage” on that hot afternoon in Durham, as coach Pat Fitzgerald described during Tuesday’s press conference, or the one that thoroughly contained McSorley and every other run-pass option (RPO) offense it faced over the rest of the 2017 season.

Jones, although a solid quarterback with great size and a lot of experience, is objectively not as electric as McSorley. He managed only 90 yards rushing over his next six games combined. Duke’s student newspaper this week called that showing against NU “likely the best performance of his career.”

To say the Cats struggle against mobile quarterbacks is a bit outdated, too. While the likes of Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett gave them much trouble in 2016, they held opposing quarterbacks to just 65 total yards rushing (including sacks) in their 12 non-Duke games last season. The run defense overall ranked 9th in the country in 2017.

It seems there’s something about the Jones-versus-NU matchup that just confounds the latter. Even in the Cats’ 2016 win over the Blue Devils in Evanston, Duke’s then-freshman signal caller had a pretty good showing, going 27-for-48 for 279 yards and rushing 10 times for 47 more yards.

Those prior struggles haven’t been forgotten, sophomore linebacker Blake Gallagher made clear Tuesday.

“We went down there a year ago and didn’t play very well,” Gallagher said. “That’s in the back of our mind as we’re preparing, getting ready for this game. … It starts up front, trying to keep him bottled up in the pocket and making sure it’s contained, and then when he does leak out, you’ve got to see it, read it and then go get him.”

It’s not that the end goal is unclear: Up against an RPO offense, it’s to shut down all three options (handoff to the running back, quarterback run or pass outside). But succeeding is more difficult.

Against Duke, NU actually held running backs Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown to a stifling 3.1 yards per carry, but let Jones run free and link up with star receiver T.J. Rahming all day long.

Against Penn State, NU stymied McSorley’s running and was decent against his passing but couldn’t match up against Saquon Barkley’s big-play ability. Against Maryland, another highly RPO-reliant team, the defense was stout against the run but beatable through the air. And in last week’s season-opener against Purdue, which implemented some RPO looks after changing quarterbacks mid-game, the Cats had trouble stopping running back D.J. Knox but overall did well in the second half.

To defend the RPO, the Cats pre-designate players as either “run primary, pass secondary” or “pass primary, run secondary” for any given play to reduce the effect of opposing offenses’ misdirection plays, since-graduated safety Kyle Queiro said last October.

Unlike with standard read-option plays, however, opposing quarterbacks read defenders at the second (linebacker) and sometimes even third (secondary) levels when making RPO decisions, meaning Jones will likely try to exploit NU’s inexperienced and potentially mistake-prone safeties on Saturday. Inauspiciously, the team’s one senior at that position — first-year starter Jared McGee — was ejected for targeting early in the game against Duke last September.

But then again, it’s extremely difficult to find any positive takeaways from that meeting, and Fitzgerald quickly tired of questions about it Tuesday. The Cats still hold a 2-1 lead entering this “series finale” against Duke — the Blue Devils finally depart from the nonconference slate after this — and will get one final opportunity this coming Saturday to prove they can stop Jones.

If they can contain him as well as they contained McSorley a year ago, that will be proved easily. But a repeat of the bruising 2017 loss would likely be very, very ugly.

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Twitter: @benpope111