DURHAM, North Carolina — It's one of the most common sayings in sports. The sign of a good team is one that has players who will pick each other up when things aren't going to plan. When one is struggling, another will raise his game. When one commits an error, another will make up for it. When one isn't doing his part, another will do it for him.
Substitute "units" for "players," and that saying perfectly explains how No. 23 Northwestern was able to go into Durham and come from behind to beat the Duke Blue Devils on Saturday, 19-10.
Northwestern's offense, for all but two drives, was putrid. At times, it looked borderline inept. But fortunately for NU, the defense was there to salvage the day, and thus the game. The Wildcats used a deep rotation, swarmed to the ball, and stymied Duke's offense, especially on key third downs.
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"We played with terrific, and at times relentless effort," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said of his defense.
But what was most impressive about Northwestern's defensive performance was its timeliness. Down 7-0 after a Clayton Thorson interception deep in Northwestern's own territory, what could prove to be a defining moment in Northwestern's season arrived. With the offense unable to move the ball — to use the word "struggling" would be a gross understatement — the weight of the third game of NU's season fell firmly on the defense. The Wildcats faced their biggest deficit, and thus their toughest test of the season to date, and the offense didn't look capable of doing anything to pass that test. The defense had to pick them up.
And that's exactly what they did. It began with a crucial three-and-out. After another NU punt, the Wildcats defense had to halt the Blue Devils' charge again. They did.
Then they did again. And again. And again. And again. Northwestern's defense forced five straight punts, all of which came after drives of five plays or fewer and 12 yards or fewer. Any Duke momentum, at least in this phase of the game, had been halted.
"We knew the offense was going to start picking it up," said linebacker Anthony Walker, who recorded an astounding 14 tackles in the first half alone. "We just wanted to keep them in the game."
But he was wrong. Northwestern's offense remained immobile. So NU's defense had to do more than keep the offense in the game. It became clear that stops might not be enough.
Prior to the sixth drive after Duke's touchdown, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald approached his defense on the sideline. "We need the ball back," he urged them. A turnover, he understood, wouldn't just be a big play. It might have been imperative.
On the very next series, Dean Lowry took charge. On second-and-goal, with Duke threatening to take a two-score lead that, at the time, almost would have felt insurmountable, NU's senior defensive end — all 290 pounds of him — leaped into the air, and extended his hands skyward. The ball found them, and pretty soon, Lowry was headed the other way. Northwestern had the turnover it needed.
But three plays, -1 yards, and a punt later, it was back to square one. This time, it was safety Godwin Igwebuike's turn to pick the offense up, and make up for its incompetence. Igwebuike ripped the ball from running back Shaun Wilson's arms on the first play of the drive, and pounced on the loose ball. Pretty soon, Northwestern was on the board with a Jack Mitchell field goal right before halftime.
The single most important play of the day arrived after the halftime interval. Solomon Vault's kick return touchdown threw a wrench into the game's narrative, and changed the entire dynamic of it. But it was only able to do so because of those innocuous first- and second-quarter defensive series that nobody will remember.
Nobody will remember the first stop on third-and-4. Nobody will remember Ifeadi Odenigbo's move that forced Duke's right tackle into a holding penalty, and consequentially forced Duke to punt a play later. Nobody will remember the white jerseys flying to the ball to tackle Thomas Sirk, Max McCaffery or Shaquille Powell short of the sticks on third-and-long.
But those plays kept Northwestern in the game. For a while in the first half, Northwestern's offense was nearly a net negative. At one point, the Wildcats were averaging 0.11 yards per play when Thorson either ran or dropped back to pass. And Thorson's first interception had gifted Duke points. As much as anything, first-half defensive stops won the game for the Wildcats.
Those plays are also examples of what is becoming the story of Northwestern's season — perhaps dangerously so. Northwestern's defense is the reason it is 3-0. It has atoned for the offense's mistakes, and compensated for its deficiencies.
In a way, of course, that is a positive. These staunch defensive performances appear to be anything but a fluke, and this unit could legitimately be one of the best in the Big Ten, if not in the country. And as the above saying goes, this dynamic is a common feature of successful teams.
But the story of Saturday might not be a repeatable one. Northwestern's defense can win it games. It has done so, and probably will do so again. But to rely on the consistent retelling of this story would be foolish. On Saturday in Durham, the story had a happy ending. In two or three weeks though, the ending could turn sour.