There was a time when a Duke-Northwestern football game would have been the rare opportunity for either team to put a notch in the win column.
The arrival of former player Pat Fitzgerald in Evanston helped the Wildcats become a respectable program, similar to what David Cutcliffe did when he came to Durham and rebuilt the Blue Devils.
Cutcliffe, who split with Duke after 14 years after last season, won’t be on the sidelines when the Blue Devils and Wildcats meet Saturday at Northwestern’s Ryan Field. But Fitzgerald, in his 17th season leading his alma mater, will be, facing first-year Duke coach Mike Elko in a battle of 1-0 teams that had impressive season-opening wins.
The Wildcats traveled across the Atlantic to play Nebraska in Dublin two Saturdays ago, rallying to beat the Cornhuskers 31-28 behind an offense that got 314 yards and two passing touchdowns from quarterback Ryan Hilinski along with 214 yards from the running game.
Offensive tackle Peter Skoronski, who is projected by some to be a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft, anchors Northwestern in the trenches. He and the rest of the offensive line will look to give Hilinski the time to make plays as they did against Nebraska.
“When I can sit back there and be patient with the ball and see the field, as a quarterback, that is the best feeling,” said Hilinski, who completed all nine of his third down attempts in the win. “I felt so calm in the pocket. I felt like I could see the whole field.”
Duke’s defense might have something to say about that.
After allowing nearly 40 points and more than 500 yards per game last season, the Blue Devils’ defense shut out Temple in Elko’s debut, holding the Owls to just 179 yards and forcing three turnovers.
“I thought we executed well,” Elko said of his defense. “I thought we tackled well. … I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage.”
On offense, Blue Devils quarterback Riley Leonard got off to a fast start by completing his first 15 passes, helping Duke jump out to a 24-0 halftime lead. He finished 24 of 30 for 328 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for a team-high 64 yards on 11 carries.
“For him to play the way he did and start the way he did in his first game as a starter was really special,” Elko said.
While Duke got off to a fast start in its opener, Fitzgerald is hoping the Wildcats can do better than the 14-3 hole they found themselves in just over 18 minutes into their game in Ireland.
“We didn’t start very fast,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s something that’s been a point of emphasis, especially since Duke jumped on people in a hurry.”
One Northwestern player who could provide some insight on the Blue Devils is Jeremiah Lewis. The cornerback transferred from Duke in the offseason after totaling 83 tackles and four interceptions in four seasons in Durham. Lewis, who has two years of eligibility remaining, had six tackles and a pass defense in his Wildcats debut against Nebraska.
“I think JLew has great respect for his alma mater, for his teammates,” said Fitzgerald, who had recruited Lewis in high school but lost out to Cutcliffe and Duke. “The name of the game is change in college football. It was the right time for him to be here.”
It’s also the right time to find out if the wins the Blue Devils and Wildcats picked up to start the season can carry over.
While Elko and Fitzgerald are considered defensive-minded coaches, both know that it will take success in all facets of the game to get to 2-0.
“That’s our goal: We want to score points and we want to stop people,” Elko said. “And we don’t try to play the game one way or the other.”