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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Football: What to Watch For: Northwestern prepares for Durham duel at No. 21 Duke

Daily file photo by Micah Sandy
Graduate student quarterback Ben Bryant looks to evade the rush at Rutgers. Bryant threw for 116 yards on 11 completions against UTEP last weekend.

With the weight of a 12-game losing streak finally lifted off the program’s shoulders, Northwestern entered the week gearing up for its final test before Big Ten West play commences.

Although the Wildcats (1-1, 0-1 Big Ten) managed to pull away in a second-half firestorm against UTEP, No. 21 Duke packs a far more potent punch –– coupled with a mountain of momentum heading into Saturday’s matchup.

Interim head coach David Braun said the game poses a “big challenge ahead” for NU.

“It’s a challenge that we’re excited about,” Braun said. “The full focus is on getting down to Durham and playing our best football.”

The Blue Devils (2-0, 1-0 ACC) hold a 12-10 advantage in the all-time series against the Cats and have won the teams’ past four meetings, dating back to 2017.

Duke put the nation on notice with a week one upset of then-No. 9 Clemson, trouncing the visiting Tigers 28-7, before blowing by FCS foe Lafayette in a 42-7 victory.

Despite his group’s scorching start to the season, Duke head coach Mike Elko said the Blue Devils can’t overlook a “really good Northwestern football program,” at his press conference on Monday.

“I think they’re starting to hit their stride now,” Elko said. “They’ve been really good on defense… and really limit the explosive plays.”

Here’s three things to watch for as NU searches for a statement road victory in Durham.

1. Ben Bryant returns from injury, eyes repeat of UTEP performance

After helping the Cats build a 21-7 lead last Saturday, graduate student quarterback Ben Bryant sustained an upper-body injury late in the third quarter that sidelined the signal caller for the rest of the game.

Bryant said his status was “day-to-day” on Tuesday, while Braun said he expects both Bryant and junior quarterback Brendan Sullivan to be ready to play on Saturday, reiterating the Cincinnati transfer’s starting role.

Following a shaky debut at Rutgers where Bryant failed to find the end zone and threw two interceptions, Bryant said he approached last weekend’s contest with a focus on enjoying the game he loves.

“Sometimes, as a quarterback, you can put a little too much pressure on yourself and try to do too much,” Bryant said. “I tried to have more fun and that helped out this past week.”

With first-game-jitters out the way, the graduate student gunslinger rebounded with a steadier showing, connecting with redshirt senior tight end Thomas Gordon for an 18-yard passing touchdown and punching in another on the ground.

For NU to remain competitive as a double-digit underdog at Duke, Bryant must put forth a gutsy performance this weekend.

2. Slowing down the run game will be pivotal

Entering last weekend, many questioned whether the Cats could stymie the Miners’ ground game, especially with the Conference-USA squad fresh off a 300-plus-yard output against Incarnate Word.

NU’s front-seven proved more than up for the challenge, though, holding UTEP to just 104 yards on 35 carries.

However, the Blue Devils’ rushing attack will be another significant test for the Cats, as Duke followed up a 199-yard week one performance on a lofty 6.6 yards per carry with 261 rush yards against Lafayette last weekend.

Possessing several weapons that can carve up a defense at will, including quarterback Riley Leonard, alongside running backs Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore, Elko will likely attempt to establish the run early.

Braun’s bunch must force the Blue Devils to try to beat them through the air and hope to generate takeaways, or Saturday may take a significant toll on the visiting defense.

3. NU must find the means to chip away at an elite defensive unit

Duke’s defense hasn’t yielded in any battle thus far.

Holding Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnick and his offense to just seven points in the team’s season opener, the Blue Devils displayed their bend-don’t-break mentality on the defensive side of the ball. The Tigers made four red zone trips at Duke, but found paydirt on just one occasion.

“We’re eliminating explosive plays well, and I think if you can tackle in open space and eliminate explosives, it’s hard sometimes for an offense to drive the length of the field consistently and finish drives,” Elko said.

With a veteran defensive line and playmakers scattered throughout the secondary, including former Cats’ defensive back Jeremiah Lewis, the Blue Devils’ defense isn’t one to take lightly.

NU’s offense hardly generated enough of a spark to light even a meager match two weeks ago at Rutgers, and the group will face a buzzsaw this weekend.

Bryant and company proved they could move the ball against UTEP, but a rigorous road trip beckons for the purple and white.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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