In what was a very ugly game, Northwestern still somehow left Durham undefeated. Clayton Thorson threw two ugly interceptions-- one that set up Duke's first touchdown and one that killed what was looking like a pretty solid drive-- and Justin Jackson was pretty effectively bottled up for much of the game. But Northwestern broke two big plays--one on special teams and one on offense--the defense was absolutely outstanding once again, and Northwestern won 19-10.
Leading up to this game, one of the biggest questions was how Northwestern would deal with Duke's team speed. The answer: fantastically on defense, not so well on offense. Thorson looked jittery from the start, missing some very short, easy throws, and it never got much better. It was tough to watch the redshirt freshman struggle so heavily, but when you have a defense like NU does, it doesn't matter. The Wildcats turned it over twice, but still won the turnover battle by forcing three of their own.
Four things stood out from Northwestern's 19-10 victory:
1. This defense is legit
Anthony Walker is playing at an All-Big Ten level through three games. He might even be playing at an All-American level. Up front, Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson are bookend studs, especially against the run. Lowry was fantastic today with a JJ Swatt-like interception and another deflection that almost resulted in a touchdown. The secondary, led by Godwin Igwebuike, was terrific. Duke had one play over 20 yards, and there was a point in the ballgame when the Blue Devils had gained 12 yards or fewer on 8 of the last 9 drives. This unit was flat-out phenomenal. With the Northwestern offense basically non-existent for the wide majority of this game, the defense handled the read-option well all contest, and Thomas Sirk, a big-armed quarterback, didn't have many places to throw downfield. And holy cow, where did Keith Watkins II learn to hit? My goodness. If you're a fan of a solid defense that flies all over the field and makes tackles, you were a fan of today's performance. Almost everything Sirk threw was a short check down. From there, Northwestern closed and tackled exceptionally.
2. Northwestern pounded and pounded and it eventually paid off
There's something to be said about a team that just will not stop running the ball. When it wasn't going well, the Wildcats continued to pound. Of course, it's not like passing was the better option, but still, Northwestern did not go away from the plan, and it's a good thing they didn't, because on a crucial 3rd and 1, Warren Long did this:
Also, it was cool to see both Vitale brothers making blocks to spring Long. And even though Justin Jackson didn't have much room to run, he still managed to go over 100 yards. With 54 rushing attempts, maybe "Pound The Rock" applies to more than just Northwestern basketball.
3. SPECIAL teams
Leading up to the game, there was a lot of talk about special teams being an advantage for Duke. It wasn't. Solomon Vault ran back the opening kick of the second half, Northwestern recovered a muffed punt, and DeVon Edwards, an All-American kick returner, was bottled up. Fantastic job by this unit.
4. What was up with Clayton Thorson?
He struggled all game long and just in general looked uncomfortable. He made some poor reads, some really poor throws and just made this game much harder for the Wildcats than it could have been. Thorson is still young (this was his first-ever road game), but this performance is not one that will help Northwestern win many games. Thanks to his defense and special teams, though, it didn't matter.
With No. 18 Auburn, No. 14 Georgia Tech, No. 15 Ole Miss, and No. 19 BYU all in action against higher ranked opponents Saturday, there's a chance No. 23 Northwestern will find itself in the top 20 in Sunday's AP Poll for the first time since Oct. 2013. The season couldn't have started any better for Northwestern.