Duke versus Northern Illinois poises an interesting matchup for fans of Power Five/Group of Five meetings.
For one, the two teams have never met ever in their respective histories. It’s also a pretty even from a skill standpoint.
All-in-all, it will present another chance for a solid smaller college team to pick up a big victory. For the Huskies, it would break a four game losing streak and be their second victory over a P5 school this year after they upset Nebraska 21-17 on Sept. 16.
Now what do they bring to the table?
Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils are back bowling for the first time since 2015. But it wasn’t exactly the easiest path.
After winning its first four games, Duke dropped six straight games (including five straight conference games) before winning its last two games to squeeze into bowl eligibility. Notably during that losing stretch, they dropped four games by a touchdown or less, including a match-up against then No. 13 Virginia Tech.
The reason why the Blue Devils have kept it close has been their defense. The team has only given up 20.8 points per game this season, which is 25th out of all FBS teams.
Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris will be a key player to watch on defense. The linebacker had success as both a pass rusher (3.5 sacks, second on team) and as a pass defender (one pick, four passes defended) despite only being a sophomore.
Add in defensive tackle Mike Ramsey, who leads the team with 5.5 sacks, and cornerback Mark Gilbert (six interceptions) and the Blue Devils have plenty of weapons to work with.
Offensively the team doesn’t pop as much. Quarterback Daniel Jones has thrown almost as many touchdowns as interceptions (12 to 11) but has six touchdowns running the ball to tie running back Brittain Brown for the team lead.
Shaun Wilson has had the majority of the team’s carries out of the backfield and has 743 rush yards along with five touchdowns. Wilson and Brown will exchange carries depending on the situation.
Northern Illinois Huskies
NIU came close to an MAC title berth with its 6-2 conference record, but was beat to the spot by a 7-1 Toledo. Despite the minor bummer, the team has a chance to finish with its best record since 2014.
The Huskies have the better offense of the two teams, with the unit averaging 30.2 points per game (57th in FBS).
Marcus Childers has been solid with his passing, throwing for 1,445 yards and 15 touchdowns against only five interceptions. All of this comes only as a freshman, a good indicator he could become one of the MAC’s better quarterbacks.
The young quarterback also has an ability to make plays on the ground. While he only averages 3.5 yards per carry, he is first on the team with five rushing touchdown. The ability to make plays will be super important in the redzone, as it will give the Huskies options.
Jordan Huff and Marcus Jones have spent much of the time this season trading carries. But with Huff nursing an ankle injury, Jones and his three rushing touchdowns will provide some push out of the running back spot.
The biggest issue will be his 4.2 yards per carry mark, which he will need to outperform to give his team a chance in this game. Duke is not exactly going to roll over to this rush attack, especially without Huff’s 5.8 yards per carry.
Defensively, NIU has given up….. the same amount of points as Duke on average (20.8). A big part of that has been defensive end Sutton Smith and his 14 sacks, which leads the nation. This is especially odd because Smith converted from being a linebacker as a freshman to defensive end as a sophomore.
The MAC Defensive Player of The Year will be a big hand in helping force turnovers, especially interceptions. With 15 on the year, those picks have made it easy for the Huskies to turn the field.
Duke will win this game if they can hold Childers and take advantage of their offensive opportunities. They also can’t throw picks, as NIU made Nebraska pay on turnovers.
NIU will need to take advantage of Duke’s weak offense and not give them room to breathe in the pocket. On top of that, Childers could put an exclamation point on the end of his first FBS season by using his abilities as a dual threat attacker.
Both teams will hang around in the early goings, but I think Duke will slip up in the second half. With the Huskies boasting the better offense, Duke will attempt to come back but be stopped on the last drive of the game.
NIU 27, Duke 20