It was an innocuous enough statement, one of those made by a confident and excited athlete in the aftermath of a big win.
“We expect to have a shutout next week,” Northwestern defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo told the Chicago Tribune on Saturday, referencing the upcoming Duke game.
But when Duke running back Shaun Wilson came across Odenigbo’s words, he wasn’t willing to write it off as general athlete-speak.
“Usually don’t get into all the rahrah (sic) and the hype but buddy tried us,” Wilson tweeted at 11 a.m. Monday, followed by a since-deleted tweet with Odenigbo’s quote. Then he closed his three-tweet sequence with, “That’s a gamble, mean what you say and say what you mean.”
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That last phrase – mean what you say and say what you mean – is one Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe shares with his team often. But in Odenigbo’s defense, No. 23 Northwestern (2-0) hasn’t given up a touchdown this season, and that includes a season-opening 16-6 win against then-No. 21 Stanford, followed by a 41-0 thrashing of Football Championship Subdivision’s Eastern Illinois.
Duke’s offense has been similarly effective (albeit against less-than-Stanford-level teams), averaging 46 points against Tulane and FCS N.C. Central. All of this sets up a more interesting contest between the Blue Devils (2-0) and Wildcats at noon Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Cutcliffe, for his part, brushed aside Wilson’s Twitter remarks.
“I don’t get upset over those things,” he said. “That’s two guys that are proud of their programs.”
And Cutcliffe isn’t buying much stock in the idea of inflammatory statements turning into bulletin-board material, either.
“Not that it’s going to win games,” he said of its effectiveness. “I know players want to get a little juice in the locker room, and we do that. But that’s not going to win or lose a football game at that moment, particularly if we didn’t prepare well. I could give the greatest speech in history and at the end of the first quarter, be down 28-0 if we don’t prepare. That’s how I feel.”
The Blue Devils have found offensive success without having to dig too deep into their playbook – Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told reporters during his Monday news conference that Duke had been pretty vanilla on offense, and that’s true. There are many wrinkles and personnel groupings the Blue Devils haven’t used yet (including two tight-end sets) – because they haven’t needed to against their two opponents.
Ten Blue Devils caught passes against N.C. Central last weekend, and on the year, only two players have caught more than seven (Johnell Barnes with 13 and T.J. Rahming with nine). Quarterback Thomas Sirk is the team’s leading rusher, averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
“Right now, one of the positives about our offense is that you can’t just say who you have to stop to stop us,” Cutcliffe said. “Obviously it all starts with the quarterback because he is the center of it, but I’m hoping – we have a players on the cusp of being good players, or really good players, or outstanding players. I think we can get more out of our people as we move forward.”
It will be strength on strength Saturday, as Northwestern’s veteran defense (with eight returning starters from a year ago) attempts to slow Duke’s offense. And the Blue Devils are aware of the opportunity that comes from hosting a ranked team: Beat the Wildcats, and maybe next week it will be Duke in that No. 23 spot.
“We’re going to be playing some big-boy football this weekend,” tight end Braxton Deaver said, “and that’s what’s fun.”