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Solomon Vault's return TD springs Northwestern to win over Duke

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Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

DURHAM, North Carolina -- The stadium was almost empty. No one was back in their seat, opting to search for refuge in whatever sliver of shade they could find on a sunny, humid mid-80s day, rather than watch the second-half kickoff of an ugly game of football in which the home team led 7-3. They mozied to the port-a-potties located around the stadium, sipped on sweet tea and munched on popcorn.

They were in no rush to get back. And how could anyone blame them?

In the first half, Duke and No. 23 Northwestern totaled 10 points, 15 punts, three turnovers and a measly three yards per play.

So as they recuperated in the shady concourses, those in attendance had no reason to expect to miss anything other than a few short runs, an incompletion and a punt.

At the same time, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was talking to his team in the visiting locker room.

"I talked to the guys about coming back in here 30 minutes later and singing the fight song," he said. "That was the only motivational talk that I spoke to them about. I didn't need to give them a fire and brimstone speech."

And it turns out that in those opening five minutes of the second half, Fitzgerald's message -- or lack thereof -- was clear to his players and those spectators seeking cover had missed everything they figured they wouldn't.

As soon as Duke kicked off to open the second half in front of the dozens of fans actually seated in sunny Wallace Wade Stadium, the game had changed. After just 14 seconds, Solomon Vault took the opening kick of the half 98 yards to give Northwestern a 9-7 lead (Jack Mitchell's extra point was blocked, because, of course, neither team could do anything completely right on this day).

"Coach Fitz came to me at halftime," Vault, a running back and return specialist, said after the game. "He said it was a special teams type of game and that we needed a big play on special teams. I just wanted to make a play for my team.

"In my head, I was already thinking that we need to make a play," he continued. "The offense was kind of stalling. The defense was playing their butts off the entire game and I kind of felt bad because we weren't putting any points on the board. If we couldn't do it on offense, I figured I'll do it on special teams."

And as fans began to trickle in and return to their seats, the game had turned with Northwestern's defense dominating and Duke's offense unable to string together enough plays to make a dent in the Wildcats' armor.

After a Duke three-and-out, Northwestern marched down the field, suddenly regaining a sense of offensive competence, finishing the drive with a 44-yard field goal to go up 12-7 with 9:46 left in the third quarter. In just over five minutes, the fans who left during halftime had returned to see a completely different football game.

Despite Clayton Thorson tossing his second interception of the game into triple coverage with a wide open receiver sitting in the flat, a microcosm of the freshman quarterback's struggles with both his decision-making and accuracy against Duke, Vault's boost was all Northwestern needed to flip the game in their favor.

"I'm not gonna lie to you," Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker said, "that Solomon play struck a lot of fire into the defense. We knew that it was our ball game then."

A few possessions later, Duke seemed to be mounting a threatening attack, only to have to settle for a field goal, cutting Northwestern's lead to two early in the fourth quarter.

But on the very next drive, any momentum Duke thought they had wrestled away from Northwestern was squashed in an instant. A third-and-one run by Warren Long turned into a 55-yard touchdown that anyone might have missed had they blinked.

But those who had seen the play that put Northwestern up 19-10, had seemingly seen enough. Fans again headed for the exits, this time with no intention of coming back into the steamy stadium, leaving a section of purple in the stadium's Southeast corner.

And when the final whistle blew, it was Northwestern's players who sought them out, chanting together as they began, "Go U! Northwestern..."