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Northwestern 19, Duke 10: Player grades from NU's come-from-behind victory

Many thought Northwestern's undefeated start to the 2015 season would end Saturday in Durham. It did not, as the Wildcats overcame a halftime deficit to get a huge win. Here's how we graded the Wildcats' more important individual performances:

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Every Sunday after a Northwestern win or loss, we'll be handing out player grades as a way to analyze the Wildcats' performance from an individual perspective. Rather than rush out the grades on Saturday, we'll sleep on them, and wake up Sunday ready to accurately evaluate NU's players, coaches and opponents.

Today, after Northwestern's third win of the season, grades are generally pretty positive:


Clayton Thorson

Grade: D
Stats: 9/23, 70 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT; 11 carries, 21 yards, 0 TD

Thorson wasn't great in either of Northwestern's first two games, but he was able to limit his mistakes en route to Wildcats wins. He did not do that at all on Saturday, as he threw two interceptions — the first two of his college career — in addition to making a slew of poor decisions that almost cost Northwestern a win. He played like a redshirt freshman who had never played a road game before in his college career.

The Wildcats were able to withstand his poor play, but that was only due to another incredible performance by the defense and special teams, which bailed Thorson out on multiple occasions. Thorson wasn't good enough today, it's that simple. Against Big Ten teams later in the season, a performance like this might not be enough. However, for now, it was.

Justin Jackson

Grade: B
Stats: 35 carries, 120 yards, 0 TD; 2 catches, 18 yards

While he wasn't his usual explosive self, Jackson was a workhouse against Duke, running the ball a career-high 35 times but only accumulating a 3.4-yard average. Most of his runs were short and relatively ineffective — his long run for the day was 11 yards — but he was able to get first downs when needed, and helped ice the game away in the fourth quarter. Duke's run defense did a great job containing Jackson. However, they struggled with Jackson's change-of-pace replacements...

Warren Long, Solomon Vault

Grades: A+
Warren Long: 2 carries, 59 yards, 1 TD
Solomon Vault: 2 carries, 10 yards; 2 kick returns, 118 yards, 1 TD

Long and Vault only combined for four carries — and two kick returns — but they arguably made the two biggest offensive plays of the game for Northwestern. Vault, on the opening kickoff of the second half, ran 98 yards to the house to push NU from being down 7-3 to up 9-7 (Jack Mitchell missed the extra point). The Wildcats would not relinquish that lead the rest of the day.

Later in the game, in the fourth quarter, Long ripped off a 55-yard touchdown run to essentially seal the victory and give NU a 19-10 lead. He was also outstanding on special teams, and recovered a fumble on a muffed punt in the fourth quarter. Long has been really impressive all over the field through three games this year.

Receiving Corps

Grade: C- 
Dan Vitale: 2 catches, 26 yards, 0 TD
Christian Jones/Miles Shuler/Mike McHugh/Jelani Roberts/Garrett Dickerson: 5 catches, 26 yards

Thorson's bad game didn't do much to help them, but the wide receivers contributed to the non-existent passing game for the Wildcats. No single pass-catcher did much to distinguish themselves in a positive light. Also, a few of Thorson's good throws could have easily been caught for big yardage — freshman Flynn Nagel had one bad drop — but they weren't. A real back-to-the-drawing-board kind of day for the NU pass offense.


Dean Lowry

Grade: A+
Stats: 6 tackles (2 solo, 4 assists), 1 interception, multiple pass deflections

Lowry was a big factor in Northwestern's first two wins, but he even outplayed his usual self on Saturday as he had a hand — literally — in most of Duke's passing plays. Thanks to a boring and predictable gameplan by the Blue Devils through the air, Lowry was able to knock down — and on one occasion intercept — multiple Thomas Sirk screen passes. He was able to break through Duke's offensive line with ease and completely disrupt their offensive flow. To boot, his interception came with Duke driving in Northwestern's red zone, thwarting a possible scoring drive.

Anthony Walker

Grade: A+
Stats: 19 tackles (7 solo, 12 assists)

Through three weeks of the season, there's nothing more certain with this Northwestern team than that Walker is a budding superstar at linebacker. He had 14 tackles — combined solo and assisted — in the first half alone, as he continued to be a complete menace to opposing running backs and quarterbacks. Duke rarely attempted a pass or run without Walker interfering in some way. Between Lowry and him, Northwestern pushed the Blue Devils' completely off their regular rhythm.

Godwin Igwebuike

Grade: A-
Stats: 8 tackles (4 solo, 4 assists), 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery

Igwebuike also had a big game defensively. The biggest play was undoubtedly the fumble he forced and recovered at the end of the first half, which led to an NU field goal and Northwestern's first points of the game. Igwebuike stripped Duke running back Shaun Wilson at the end of a 16-yard run in Blue Devil territory, and picked the loose ball up himself, giving the Wildcats a huge momentum boost heading into the break. He also made some big tackles of Duke receivers short of the first down marker.

Special Teams

Grade: A

One of the narratives coming into the game was Duke's outstanding special teams units. Even putting Solomon Vault's kick return touchdown aside, the Wildcats' special teams dominated though. Jack Mitchell made both of his field goal attempts — he did have an extra point blocked — while Hunter Niswander, who was called on for 10 punts, consistently got great hangtime. Punt coverage was also great. And oh yea, Vault's return was the game's biggest play.