Football: Northwestern seeks to maintain momentum in home opener against Duke


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Junior running back Evan Hull. The Minnesota native had a strong performance on the ground against Duke in 2021.

Charlotte Varnes, Sports Editor

Two weeks after a comeback win against Nebraska, Northwestern looks to continue its winning ways stateside. 

The pieces seemed to fall into place for the Cats against the Huskers: a triumphant offensive debut, a balanced defensive effort and the ability to grit out a win after falling behind by 11 points on two separate occasions.

NU’s next opportunity to recreate the magic will come in its home opener against Duke on Saturday. When the teams last met in September 2021, the Blue Devils foiled NU’s furious rally and secured a 30-23 victory in the final minutes.

The Cats have lost three straight games against Duke since 2017. Saturday’s matchup provides an opportunity for NU to snap the streak and build on their momentum from the Nebraska contest. Here are a few things to look out for as the Cats take on the Blue Devils this weekend.

Mike Elko and Duke’s defense

Coach K’s departure isn’t the only major coaching shift for Duke athletics this season.

After a 3-9 season in 2021, Duke and former coach David Cutcliffe mutually agreed to part ways. Now, first year coach Mike Elko looks to revive the Blue Devils, who last went to a bowl in 2018. A former defensive coordinator, Elko is tasked with a squad that ranked last among all 130 FBS teams in total defense in 2021.

Just one game into 2021, the Blue Devils appear to be on the brink of a turnaround. Duke shut out Temple 30-0 in its season opener — its first time doing so since 1989. The Owls didn’t move the chains once in the first quarter, and their offense only achieved 179 yards as a result of the Blue Devils’ defensive efforts.

Was the Temple matchup a fluke, or a sign of rejuvenation of Duke football? Saturday’s matchup will provide clues. 

Northwestern offense clicks

When the Cats squared off against Duke in 2021, the offense was all over the place. Not one, not two, but three quarterbacks entered the game for NU.

It was, fittingly, current junior and starting quarterback Ryan Hilinski’s first action for the Cats. After starter Hunter Johnson was benched for turning the ball over and Andrew Marty departed with an injury, Hilinski completed just two passes for 34 yards after entering in the second half. A year later, Hilinski is coming off his strongest performance yet as the heartbeat of NU’s offense.

The Cats’ offensive performance against Nebraska was a marked turnaround from 2021. Hilinski completed 27 of 38 passes for 314 yards, the offensive line clicked and running backs Evan Hull and Cam Porter looked at ease on the ground. 

NU’s home opener provides an opportunity to re-examine its offense. If the Cats defeat the defensive-minded Blue Devils, it could be a sign of good things to come. 

A new signal caller at Duke

Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg crushed NU’s hopes of winning in the 2021 contest, throwing for over 300 passing yards and a touchdown. He has since departed for Florida International University, leaving the starting job to sophomore Riley Leonard.

Leonard looked comfortable from the start against Temple, completing his first 15 passes to lead the Blue Devils to a 24-point advantage at halftime.

For the most part, the Cats’ defense held up in the first contest against the Huskers. NU held Nebraska to 110 yards on the ground, and strong individual performances from senior defensive back Cam Mitchell, junior linebacker Xander Mueller and junior linebacker Greyson Metz kept the Huskers at bay. 

Leonard will make just his third career start in Evanston on Saturday. He was certainly on a roll against the Owls, but a confident Wildcat defense will look to slow him down.  

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charvarnes11

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