Duke looks to take care of business against reeling peer Northwestern

The Wildcats are struggling after a turbulent offseason

Aeneas Peebles and the 21st-ranked Blue Devils are off to a 2-0 start and will host Northwestern on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

Duke enters Saturday’s game against Northwestern in an unfamiliar position for the program. The Blue Devils need to show no mercy against an opponent that has fallen on hard times.

For most of Duke’s football history, the Blue Devils have been the program that was struggling. Duke was the consensus worst Division I program in the nation before David Cutcliffe rebuilt the program, nearly from scratch. The Blue Devils had hit another rough patch in the final years of Cutcliffe’s tenure, however, requiring another jolt from the defibrillator that is second-year coach Mike Elko.

After upsetting Clemson on Labor Day in a lopsided home win, Duke quickly and efficiently dispatched Lafayette and now looks to get off to a 3-0 start for the second straight year. That’s something the Blue Devils have done in back-to-back seasons just twice in the last 50 years — once under Cutcliffe and once under Steve Spurrier.

To do it, Duke will have to get past Northwestern, a team that, over history, has been Duke’s relative equal, or at least as close as another Power Five conference could come. They’re the small, academically elite private school that doesn’t have the same budget as its bigger brothers in their conference.

This year, however, Duke is catching the Wildcats at a low point. The Blue Devils have a four-game winning streak against Northwestern in the nearly annual series, their longest since the end of the Spurrier years more than three decades ago.

In July, weeks before fall camp was scheduled to open, longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald was dismissed in the fallout of a sexual hazing scandal that rocked the program. David Braun, who had no previous head coaching experience or time spent on a Division I coaching staff — he was hired to serve as Northwestern’s defensive coordinator for the 2023 season — took over as interim head coach.

“We don’t know what the long term looks like,” Braun said. “That’s indicative of the title I’m carrying right now. And that’s OK. At the end of the day, regardless of how this plays out in the long term, my wife and I and this group (are) going to look back and say, ‘You know what? We’re proud of the way we did it. We stewarded the program. We navigated it through a really difficult time and set it up to have success.’”

Braun made those comments after earning his first win — a home victory over UTEP last weekend that evened the Wildcats’ season at 1-1. Northwestern lost its opener to Big Ten doormat Rutgers, 24-7.

Despite Northwestern’s woes, Elko is taking pains to make sure the Blue Devils don’t overlook the game, a risk that Duke football rarely has to manage.

“They’re a Big Ten team, so they’re big and they’re physical,” Elko said. “They were able to run the ball really well last week in the second half. They got the running game going a little bit. Defensively, they’ve given up about 15 points a game. They’ve been very physical, they’re very stout. I think they know the scheme that they’re playing very well, and they play it very fast. I think they’re a big, big challenge for us.”

Despite Elko’s warnings, Northwestern enters the game with plenty of question marks, particularly on offense. The Wildcats have had four quarterbacks lead scoring drives already this year, and two of them were injured by the time their second game was over. That included starter Ben Bryant. Braun said Bryant — and backup Brendan Sullivan, who also went down against UTEP — would both be ready to go.

“I’m not going to share specifics, but we anticipate both of those guys being available,” he said.

While Bryant was declared the starter for Duke, the quarterback who might be giving Elko the most sleepless nights as he prepares is Jack Lausch. The dual-threat had a rushing touchdown and another 46-yard run against UTEP, setting up two of the Wildcats’ five scoring drives in limited time at the helm.

“There have been consistent conversations from myself to the rest of our staff that he’s a young man that needs to be on the field. He just does,” Braun said. “He has the ability to do some things that really change the map for a defense.”

Braun also has not settled on a right tackle, alternating between two blockers at that key spot.

“From Day 1 we’ve said that position was going to kind of be by committee, that they would rotate in,” Braun said. “We were hot and we stayed with the hot hand.”

It’s a rare position, indeed, for Duke to welcome an opponent in turmoil. If Elko has his way, it’s a spot the Blue Devils will familiarize themselves with over time.