Football: Northwestern prepares to face Duke for first time in three years in opening road game


Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern

Hunter Johnson prepares to throw a pass. Johnson is looking to improve upon his performance against Indiana State this week against Duke.

Drew Schott, Gameday Editor


In 2008, Pat Fitzgerald and David Cutcliffe clashed on opposing sidelines for the first time as head coaches.

Fitzgerald, who took over Northwestern after the sudden passing of coach Randy Walker, led the Wildcats into Durham to face Cutcliffe in his first season leading Duke. Cutcliffe previously spent seven years at Ole Miss.

NU left with a 24-20 victory, its sixth straight win over the Blue Devils. The two teams have played four times since then.

Now, for the first time in three years, Fitzgerald and Cutcliffe are matching up once again in the Cats’ first road game of the season.

“(I’ve) just been always impressed,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m a huge Duke fan except for when we play each other because of my relationship with coach (Cutcliffe). I look forward to seeing him. I look forward to rooting for him for the rest of the year. Not this one, though.”

The last time NU (1-1, 0-1 Big Ten) traveled to Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, it gave up 538 yards of offense and fell 41-17, breaking an eight-game win streak against the Blue Devils (1-1). Fitzgerald attributed the 2017 loss to giving up big plays, “self-inflicted wounds” and turnovers; the Cats committed three.

NU made the same mistakes in Duke’s 21-7 win at Ryan Field a year later, Fitzgerald added. At that game, Blue Devil and current New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones passed for 192 yards — including a 52-yard touchdown. NU found the red zone just twice and completed only nine of its 19 third-down attempts.

Since their last meeting, the programs have been on two different trajectories. The Cats, who made the 2018 Big Ten Championship game after their loss to the Blue Devils, are looking to return to Indianapolis for the third time in four seasons. Meanwhile, Duke is seeking an above-.500 record and bowl appearance for the first time in three seasons.

The teams still see a parallel: both squads suffered losses in the season opener before defeating Football Championship Subdivision opponents the next week.

“One of the main things that we’re learning every day and continuing to develop on is our trust with each other,” sophomore safety Brandon Joseph said. “These new guys, as they continue to get on the field, as they continue to get more playing time, they’re gonna learn that all I have to really do is my job because all 10 guys around them are doing it.”

A leader on NU’s back end, Joseph said the unit is focused on stopping the run and explosive plays to take the next step as a defense. Their next test will be slowing Blue Devils running back Mataeo Durant, who leads the country with six rushing touchdowns and ranks sixth in college football with 296 yards on the ground.

NU’s three-man running back rotation of sophomore Evan Hull, freshman Anthony Tyus III and graduate Andrew Clair is starting to take shape. But the performance of senior quarterback Hunter Johnson may define its performance in North Carolina. The Indiana native is looking to replicate his season-opening performance, where he threw for a career-high 283 yards and three touchdowns against Michigan State.

“Game one, it was definitely nice to get some shots early on in the game and get in a rhythm,” Johnson said. “It opened up the underneath and the run game as well. I think if we just connect much more in this next game, we’re staying on track to where we were in the first game.”

Heading into this weekend, Johnson is looking to improve his pocket presence and setting his feet and eyes during a play. Last week, he tossed just 66 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Indiana State. Facing a secondary without its best player in Michael Carter II — now with the New York Jets — the former five-star recruit has “full confidence” from his head coach.

Defeating Duke would be NU’s first win over the squad since 2016. But linebacker Chris Bergin thinks it will be business as usual for the Cats.

“Having the coaching staff that we do and the way that they prepare us, we have no excuse not to get a week better,” Bergin said. “So as we go into this week, we treat every opponent the same and give them the same respect.”

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