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Northwestern-Duke Final Score: Wildcats surge in second half to secure first win

The Wildcat defense shut down the Duke attack, and two Clayton Thorson long balls did the trick.

Duke v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

On a beautiful night in Evanston, the Northwestern Wildcats used a suffocating second-half defense, timely turnovers and multiple long touchdowns to defeat the Duke Blue Devils 24-13.

The Wildcats came out of the gates strong, going 75 yards on 10 plays on their opening drive. The drive featured solid blocking from the much-maligned offensive line and finished with a 26-yard strike from Clayton Thorson to Garrett Dickerson.

It was a mainly quiet quarter from there out, with Duke putting together two drives, but neither getting the Blue Devils on the board. On the first such drive, Northwestern’s defense stiffened at its own 38, and Duke comically failed on a fake punt in which the intended receiver tripped. On the second one, just before the end of the opening period, Godwin Igwebuike stepped in front of a Daniel Jones pass for his first interception since he had three against Wisconsin in 2014.

After the teams traded punts, Northwestern drove to the Duke 25 before a poor decision and throw from Thorson. Byron Fields made a fantastic play to secure a diving interception at his team’s own 1 yard-line.

Duke’s offense found some life following the pick and went on a 99-yard drive with Parker Boehme, who had replaced Jones after the interception, at the helm. Running back Jela Duncan punched it in with just over three minutes to go.

Still, Northwestern had the chance to take a lead going into the locker room, and the Wildcats mounted a drive into Duke territory centered around this dime from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel:

After a roughing the kicker on a 49-yard attempt from Mitchell, the Wildcats got an untimed kick from the 34. Wide left. It was 7-7 at half.

In the second half, the game turned from boring and bad to ridiculous and bad. Duke brought Jones back in, and he quickly began to pick up yards in chunks, mostly with short, high-percentage passes.

With the Blue Devils nearing the red zone, Anthony Walker made his biggest play of the season with a nifty strip and scoop on a quarterback keeper. The Wildcats immediately punted it back, though.

After it looked as if the game would become a battle of punts, Northwestern caught a break on just that. Duke, following a second Thorson interception, was set to punt it back to the Wildcats. But punter Austin Parker mishandled the snap, and one play later, Northwestern took the lead for good.

From there, Northwestern’s defense took control, and Mitchell hit his first field goal of the season, a 40-yarder, to put the Wildcats ahead 17-7.

To put icing on the cake, Thorson hit on his second big touchdown, this time to Austin Carr, who has become a very solid No. 1 receiving option.

The defense, solid throughout, held Duke off the board until a meaningless late score. It bent but rarely broke, and was generally very good when Duke appeared to get things going.

A 2015-esque second half from the defense and a career-high in yards from Thorson was a good formula for the Wildcats to finally get in the win column.


  • With an extremely young secondary, Northwestern mostly had its cornerbacks play several yards off Duke’s wide receivers. While it generally worked preventing big plays, Duke was able to pick up lots of simple short throws. Still, with the Wildcats able to hold once Duke entered their territory, making the strategy very much a net positive. Overall, Montre Hartage and Trae Williams were solid.
  • The coaches mixed and matched in the secondary trying to overcome an absurd amount of injuries. With Hartage and Williams on the outside, linebacker Joe Jones and safeties Igwebuike, Jared McGee and Parrker Westphal all saw time in the slot.
  • This was by far the best game of the year from Anthony Walker. The Franchise came up with a huge forced fumble and recover as Duke was driving to go ahead early in the third. He finished with only four tackles, but he registered two for loss and his first sack of the season.
  • There are still major issues offensively, especially up front. Justin Jackson finished with 94 yards, but ran nine times for 69 yards in the first quarter alone, when the offensive line looked very good. But The Ball Carrier was really bottled up in the second (eight carries, two yards) and third (five carries, five yards) quarters and Northwestern generally was forced to pass ... Which leads us to
  • Clayton Thorson threw for 320 yards. He can be very good when afforded time, and he threw two pretty deep balls for scores. His issues come when his protection is overwhelmed or even when he just has to maneuver around one guy who breaks free. When his pass protection holds up and he has the time to read the defense, he can deliver accurately. You got both the good and the bad tonight—he completed under 50 percent of his passes—but he made some big throws when he needed to.

On to Nebraska...