Through the next couple of weeks, we’ll be checking in with some of the nonconference opponents facing off with Big Ten teams in 2016 to provide a better idea of what to expect from those squads. We continue now with Duke.
Opponent: Duke (at Northwestern, Sept. 17)
Names to know: QB Thomas Sirk, WR T.J. Rahming, WR Anthony Nash, OT Casey Blaser, OT Gabe Brandner, OG Tanner Stone, DT A.J. Wolf, LB Tinashe Bere, CB Breon Borders, CB DeVon Edwards, S Alonzo Saxton II, S Deondre Singleton
Offseason storyline: Sirk put together a stellar campaign in 2015, when he passed for the second-most yards in school history (3,428). He averaged 218.8 yards passing per game with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Sirk also led the Blue Devils in rushing yards (803) and touchdowns (eight). But Sirk suffered a torn Achilles tendon during offseason workouts in February, and his status for the start of the season is one of the most central storylines.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe told reporters in May that he was "absolutely" hopeful Sirk would play in the team's season opener against North Carolina Central, even though the game takes place only seven months after the injury.
"That's where we are in our thoughts," Cutcliffe said. "He's a great athlete. He heals a lot faster than I do. So I'm hopeful that we have a shot."
If Sirk is not healthy enough to play, Parker Boehme will be the starting quarterback. He completed 43 of 78 passes last season in a backup role, for 579 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Duke's offensive continuity also should remain despite a change at offensive coordinator. Former offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery left to become head coach at East Carolina. He's been replaced by Zac Roper, who spent the past three seasons as Duke's special teams coordinator. Roper has been on staff since Cutcliffe took over in 2008.
What’s at stake for Northwestern? Last season, Northwestern beat Duke 19-10 on the road to build momentum as part of a 5-0 start. The Wildcats will have an opportunity this year to close the nonconference portion of their schedule 3-0 with a victory at home against Duke. Northwestern faces a difficult Big Ten slate, which includes crossover games against East Division foes Michigan State and Ohio State. The Wildcats might not win 10 games like they did a year ago, but every victory will be important as Northwestern attempts to reach consecutive bowl games.
What’s at stake for Duke? Duke had plenty of reason to feel good after winning a bowl game last December for the first time in 54 years. Cutcliffe has orchestrated a special turnaround in Durham, making the Blue Devils a player in the ACC's Coastal Division each season. Duke has gone 27-13 the past three seasons, and picking up a road victory against a quality Big Ten team would show the Blue Devils aren't going anywhere. Plus, it would create plenty of positive vibes heading into a tough showdown at Notre Dame one week later.