Duke’s Cutcliffe on preparing for a Northwestern team that plays two quarterbacks
One of Duke’s most impressive wins last season came at home in Week 2 against Northwestern.
Quarterback Daniel Jones rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns while also throwing for 305 yards and two touchdowns as the Blue Devils routed the Wildcats, 41-17.
Considering Northwestern went on to a 10-3, closing the season on an eight-game winning streak, Duke’s win was even more impressive.
This is the last year of a four-year contract between the two teams, with Northwestern ahead in the series 2-1. Splitting the series won’t be easy for Duke for several reasons.
Here are 10 things to know about the Big Ten’s Wildcats.
1. Last season recap
Though Duke ripped the Wildcats 41-17 at Wallace Wade Stadium last Sept. 9, Northwestern responded well to that early setback to post a strong season.
The Wildcats started 2-3 before reeling off eight consecutive wins to finish the season 10-3. That included a 7-2 Big Ten record with wins over Iowa, Maryland, then-No. 16 Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois. Northwestern beat Kentucky, 24-23, in the Music City Bowl at Nashville on Dec. 29 even though quarterback Clayton Thorson suffered a torn ACL during the game.
Leading returning rusher: Playing behind senior running back Justin Jackson, Jeremy Larkin, who’s now a sophomore, ran for 503 yards and scored five touchdowns last season. In his last five games, when Northwestern was winning, he averaged 7.7 yards per carry.
Leading returning passer: Clayton Thorson completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 2,844 yards 15 touchdowns against 12 interceptions as a junior.
Leading returning receiver: Then-sophomore Bennett Skowroneck topped the Wildcats in receiving yards with 644 on 45 receptions with five touchdowns last season. Sophomore Flynn Nagel, a one-time Duke commitment, caught a team-best 48 passes to gain 489 yards
Leading returning tackler: Linebacker Paddy Fisher burst on the to college scene with a team-best 113 tackles last season as a freshman.
Leading returning defensive back: As a junior, Monte Hartage broke up seven passes in 13 games last season.
3. Returning all-conference players
Fisher made second-team, all-Big Ten in the media selections and was third team in the coaches voting.
Junior defensive lineman Joe Gaziano was second-team, all-Big Ten in media voting after leading Northwestern with nine sacks last season as a sophomore.
Another freshman defender, lineman Samdup Miller, was honorable mention all-Big Ten after recording 8.5 tackles for loss in 13 games.
Linebacker Nate Hall led Northwestern with 16.5 tackles for loss as a junior last season when he was honorable mention all-Big Ten.
On offense, Thorson was third-team, all-Big Ten while kicker Charlie Kuhbander made honorable mention as a freshman after making 13 of 16 field goals and 44 of 45 extra points.
4. Key losses
Running back Justin Jackson generated plenty of offense for the Wildcats as a senior last season. A second-team, all-Big Ten selection (behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley), Jackson gained 1,311 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. He also caught 44 passes (third on the team) to gain 276 yards.
In the defensive secondary, safety Kyle Queiro led Northwestern in interceptions with five as a senior last season. He also had 60 tackles.
Another senior safety, Godwin Igwebuike, finished third on the team in tackles with 78 last season.
So the defensive secondary has some holes to fill, especially in run support.
Up front, defensive lineman Tyler Lancaster completed his career with recording 9.5 tackles for losses last season.
5. Breakout candidate
Sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin is clearly in line to have an increased role now that Jackson is with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Larkin’s play late last season against Big Ten foes shows he has the capability of helping replace Jackson. Northwestern will need him to be efficient and productive on first and second down, which will keep Thorson out of obvious passing situations and make the Wildcats’ offense go.
In Northwestern’s 31-27 win over Purdue last Thursday night, Larkin rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns. So far, so good.
6. A strength
Despite a few key losses, Northwestern is set up to be strong defensively once again. The Wildcats return 12 linemen or linebackers who played significant snaps last season. Three of them -- Gaziano, Fisher and Hall -- were highly productive players who should only get better this season.
7. A weakness
The combination of Thorson’s injury and Jackson’s graduation throws some doubt in Northwestern’s ability to score.
A senior starting at quarterback for his fourth season, Thorson appears to be ready for a big season. But the torn ACL suffered in the bowl game creates question marks around the early season games. Northwestern’s coaching staff is limiting his play.
When you add in the fact the Jackson helped keep the Wildcats out of third-and-long plays last season, there’s more uncertainty.
According to SBnation.com’s Football Study Hall advanced statistical site, Thorson completed just 28-for-59 passes with one touchdown, three interceptions, and a 98.7 passer rating when facing third-and-7 or more last season.
If Larkin proves not as good a runner as Jackson was last season, the still-recovering Thorson could find himself in tough down-and-distance situations.
That didn’t show up against Purdue but now it’s Duke’s job to exploit this.
8. 2018 recruiting ranking
The Wildcats hover around the top-50 mark in the national recruiting rankings, placing 59th with their class of 2018 according to 247sports.com. Northwestern landed at 50 with the Class of 2017.
The top newcomer is defensive lineman Devin O’Rourke, a four-star recruit from the Chicago suburb of Frankfort, Illinois. The Wildcats also dipped into North Carolina to land three-star defensive end Andrew Leota from Asheville. Leota had offers from Duke, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia Tech.
9. Coaching changes
After seven consecutive seasons without any staff changes, the offseason saw relative turmoil at Northwestern.
Linebackers coach Randy Bates left to become a defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh while veteran Jerry Brown retired. Brown had been Northwestern’s assistant head coach since 2002 and had been on the Wildcats’ staff for 24 seasons.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who played for the Wildcats from 1993-96, brought in two other alums in Lou Ayeni (running backs) and Tim McGarigle (linebackers).
August 30: Northwestern 31, Purdue 27
Sept. 8 vs. Duke (noon, ESPNU)
Sept. 15 vs. Akron (6:30 p.m., BTN)
Sept. 29 vs. Michigan
Oct. 6 at Michigan State
Oct. 13 vs. Nebraska
Oct. 20 at Rutgers
Oct. 27 vs. Wisconsin
Nov. 3 vs. Notre Dame
Nov. 10 at Iowa
Nov. 17 at Minnesota
Nov. 24 vs. Illinois