Forget Duke safety Jeremy Cash and forget Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker Jr.
Northwestern running back Justin Jackson and Duke’s Shaquille Powell are good, but they won’t decide Saturday’s game, either.
Instead, two players with a combined four starts will orchestrate the offenses and likely decide who leaves Durham with a win.
Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk, a redshirt junior, and Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, a redshirt freshman, will line up under center. And because of the inexperience of each player, Duke coach David Cutcliffe and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald face the difficult task of preparing for a player on which they have little film.
Through the first two games, Sirk has thrown nearly 50 percent more passes than Thorson. During a 37-7 win at Tulane, Duke’s 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback completed 27 of 40 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns. Last week against N.C. Central, Sirk completed 15 of 22 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns. He still hasn’t thrown an interception. And he also has run 24 times for a 6.42 yard-per-carry average and a touchdown.
“It’s going to be a great challenge,” Fitzgerald said of facing Sirk. “He’s a dynamic athlete. He’s a dual-threat guy. He went in on crunch time plays last year, short-yardage, goal line plays – so he’s been out there. He’s been out there more than just two games. He’s an impressive athlete. Really good player.”
Northwestern’s Thorson went 12-of-24 in his first game as a starter for 105 yards. He didn’t throw any touchdowns in that 16-6 win against then-No. 21 Stanford, but he also didn’t throw any interceptions. There were plenty of close calls, though – especially in the red zone. The game-changing play came during the second quarter when Thorson took a quarterback draw 42 yards for a touchdown.
He seemed to settle down in Northwestern’s second game, albeit against a weaker opponent. In a 41-0 thrashing of Eastern Illinois, he completed 11 of 16 passes for 152 yards and tossed his first touchdown pass. His yards-per-attempt jumped up to 9.5, and he also added another score on the ground.
“They’ve got a young quarterback that’s playing at a high level that’s got a big-time arm and is a very fast football player,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s a threat, and he has good skill around him and a big offensive line.”
But tape on Thorson is limited. Unless Cutcliffe goes back to the high school tape, he’ll only have two games worth of film on the 6-4, 220-pound quarterback. Cutcliffe will focus more on scheme than Thorson in particular.
“It’s not just watching a player,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re very systematic, their program. They do what Northwestern does, regardless of who, basically, is at quarterback. We all alter little things based on talent, but he can throw it and he can run it, but there are not any major differences in what they’re doing last year and what they’ve done in the past.
“I looked at them all summer. All our early opponents, I watched all their seasons from last year. It’s not that big of an adjustment. They’re very versatile on offense. They give you a lot of formation problems. They know, on both sides of the ball, schematically, very well what they’re doing.”
Sirk played in 12 games last season in goal-line and short-yardage situations. He threw just 14 passes but ran 47 times for 5.06 yards per carry.
That film might give Northwestern a bit more to go off, but Fitzgerald said he still expects a difficult week of preparation.
“You’ve got to do a great job researching not only what they’ve done in these two games but then also schematically what they did a year ago,” Fitzgerald said. “Try to predict to the best of our ability.
“They’ve been pretty vanilla the first two weeks, so to predict what we should anticipate seeing. It’s a great challenge on our defensive staff to expose our defense to what we think we’re going to see and then just be prepared to adjust.”
The job for Cutcliffe and Fitzgerald this week isn’t limited to game-planning for another team’s quarterback. The coaches also need to prepare their own first-time starters for the conference season. Sure, Duke and Northwestern both sport solid defenses and running games, but neither team will reach a conference championship game without a competent quarterback.
Cutcliffe made sure to point out with any new quarterback, there’s more to playing the position than learning the playbook and figuring out the X’s and O’s. There’s more to decision-making than where to throw the ball.
“What people don’t understand about decision-making is (there are) so many parts of it: How to take care of the football, when to take a risk, when not to take a risk, what is the score of the game, where is the ball on the field,” Cutcliffe said. “Younger quarterbacks struggle sometimes with just taking the structure of the game. I call it game management. When you see young quarterbacks that do that real well, and I think both of these young quarterbacks are displaying that, then you have a chance to have a guy that can really be exceptional.”
When Duke and Northwestern meet Saturday, those flashes of exceptional play could make the difference for two otherwise evenly matched teams.
The quarterbacks might be unknowns to other fan bases now, but they won’t be for long.
▪ Clayton Thorson, No. 23 Northwestern (2-0): 23-for-40, 257 yards, 1 TD
▪ Thomas Sirk, Duke (2-0): 42-for-62, 604 yards, 5 TDs