Football: Northwestern’s defense readies for test against Mataeo Durant and Duke’s rushing attack


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Coach Pat Fitzgerald walks along the sideline. Ahead of Northwestern’s matchup against Duke, he called the Blue Devils’ Mataeo Durant “a complete back.”

Lawrence Price, Assistant Sports Editor


After giving up 264 yards and four touchdowns to Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, Northwestern tightened its rushing defense against Indiana State.

In a 24-6 win over the Sycamores, the Wildcats allowed only 31 yards on the ground — nearly one-tenth of the rush yards they surrendered against the Spartans (326) — and 1.4 yards per carry. Now, NU will need to continue this high-level performance as the team heads to North Carolina.

This weekend, the Cats (1-1, 0-1 Big Ten) will face Duke (1-1) and senior Mataeo Durant, one of the best running backs in college football.

“He’s played a ton of games and he is a complete back,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He runs behind his pads, he’s got great patience, he’s got home run speed, he can catch the ball. You can see how they trust him.”

In just two games, Durant has rushed for 296 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 6.7 yards per attempt. After running for 255 yards in a Week One loss to Charlotte, the running back received just 15 carries for 41 yards against North Carolina A&T. But Duke’s 2020 Most Valuable Player still scored three times.

Durant currently has the most rushing touchdowns and the sixth-most rushing yards in the country.

“After what Michigan State did to us, we knew that was not okay,” sophomore safety Brandon Joseph said. “That’s not what we expect from ourselves as a unit. To be the elite defense that we want to be, we have got to stop the run. We have got to stop the passing. We have got to stop the big plays.”

How can the Cats achieve this? Stop one of the Blue Devils’ points of success: their third down efficiency. The team has completed more than 50% of its third down attempts in both games this season, going 8-14 (57%) against Charlotte and 9-15 (60%) versus North Carolina A&T.

NU’s third-down defense was on full display against the Sycamores, limiting the squad to just four successful attempts on 15 tries (26 percent). It’s possible that Duke gives a prolific running back like Durant the ball on third and fourth down.

“They got a really tough package to prepare for,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re very sound with what they have offensively. (They) put a lot of pressure on you with their talent and then their ability to make plays down the field while they grind you up in the run game with the complimentary play action pass. So we got our hands full. There’s no doubt.”

The Blue Devils have provided a solid passing attack to go along with Durant and the team’s strong ground game. Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg has thrown for 498 yards on 40 completions, but only has one touchdown through the air — nine of Duke’s 10 scores have been on runs.

In addition to Durant’s six touchdowns, Holmberg entered the end zone twice on the ground against North Carolina A&T and quarterback Jordan Moore rushed for a touchdown in the same game, a 45-17 win.

Duke will enter the contest at Wallace Wade Stadium coming off a win, but NU will do the same. The Cats already have experience facing one of the best running backs in both the Big Ten and the nation. Walker III, a transfer from Wake Forest, has the fourth-most rushing yards in the country with 321 and five touchdowns.

A test certainly awaits the Cats on Saturday when they arrive in Durham. How they respond to Durant may not only impact the trajectory of their season, but could alter Durant’s campaign. The running back is averaging 148 yards and three touchdowns per game.

“Mataeo Durant is a good back and we look forward to getting the opportunity to play him,” graduate linebacker Chris Bergin said. “The defense you see this week will be better than the defense you saw last week.”

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