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Northwestern-Duke recap: Player grades from Northwestern’s 24-13 win

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Far better grades than last week, that’s for sure.

Duke v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

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.

After a solid 24-13 win the grades are positive:

Offense

Overall Grade: B-

The offense gets a slight grading curve due to how bad it looked last week. The offensive line wasn’t able to protect Thorson all that well, but they sometimes gave him just enough time to construct some deep throws and short passes that overwhelmed Duke’s secondary. As with the Western Michigan game, the first drive looked fantastic, but the offense stalled out afterwards due to a bad interception and a missed field goal (that was actually missed twice, oh joy). Northwestern finally got going again in the second half and put up 17 points, which is quite an achievement for this offense. Austin Carr had a huge day, which made up for Northwestern’s failure to do much on the ground. Not an ideal performance, but enough to get the job done.

Clayton Thorson

Grade: B-

Stats: 18/39, 320 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 46.2 completion percentage, 130.2 passer rating

Stats are not for losers, but they can lie. On the surface, many of Thorson’s numbers look very good. He had a career high in passing yards with 320 and three impressive touchdown passes. He also took 5 sacks, threw two interceptions and only completed 46.2 percent of his passes. You have to give Thorson credit for hitting those deep throws however, and one of the interceptions wasn’t his fault. Jack Mitchell missing field goals wasn’t Thorson’s fault either. His worst moment was definitely the first interception, but he also made some tough throws while under serious duress.

When Thorson had time to throw, he looked precise and crisp. He took apart Duke’s secondary with the help better wide receiver play than we saw all of last season. The deep ball was working and his partnership with Carr looks fantastic through three games. When he was pressured, however, Thorson got much worse. Duke tried to blitz often and Northwestern’s o-line often couldn’t handle the pressure. That contributed to many of the incompletions and the inefficiency. I suspect that Thorson will take the win over any of these statistics, but he looked good at times nonetheless. Like the offense as a whole, some good, some bad and enough to get a win.

Justin Jackson

Grade: C+

Stats: 28 carries, 94 yards rushing, 1 reception, -3 yards receiving

Remember all that wishful thinking about Jackson getting a smaller workload? With Warren Long’s injury, that wishful thinking is far from reality. Jackson was still getting work with Northwestern running out the clock up by two possessions. There just isn’t going to be a rest for this guy. Auston Anderson had one carry.

Jackson did not have a banner performance against Duke, but he did what he could given the current state of the offensive line and last week’s minor injury. In terms of health, Jackson looked totally fine from a distance and looked healthy when he broke off a 21-yard run. However, Jackson was unable to get much going otherwise. He only reached 94 yards in net rushing and the offensive line looked at a loss when creating gaps for him. But for once, Northwestern survived on offense without Jackson at the top of his game. Hopefully he can bounce back against Nebraska.

Austin Carr

Grade: A

Stats: 6 catches, 135 yards, 1 touchdown

Carr’s single-game yardage total was the most a Northwestern receiver has had in a game since Christian Jones tallied 182 yards back when Trevor Siemian was the quarterback. Carr was brilliant in this game and it looked like Duke had no answers for Carr’s skillset, other than taking cheap shots at him. Carr was able to get underneath Duke’s coverage. Carr was able to beat Duke’s coverage going over the top. The only question was whether Thorson could get him the ball. While Thorson did struggle in that department, he did enough to get Carr 135 yards and a long touchdown pass, so that eventually worked out well. Other than a drop and a missed block or two, Carr was great.

Offensive Line

Grade: D+

Stats: allowed 5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss and 12 quarterback hits

The offensive line was good enough for Northwestern to win the game. That’s about it. The line inexplicably earned a D- last week when it should have received an F, so this time I will be grading on a harsher scale. The offensive line really limited Northwestern’s offense in this game. It’s clear that Thorson has taken a step forward, however small you think that may be. He has more poise and accuracy when he isn’t pressured and makes fewer bad decisions. However, the offensive line just can’t give him enough time. When he does manage to complete passes, he usually ends up flat on his back due to pressure. Duke managed 12 quarterback hits on Thorson.

Duke’s defensive line isn’t that great, but Northwestern’s offensive line just couldn’t protect Thorson for extended chunks of time. Northwestern was forced to rely on deep throws and some great wide receiver play. Otherwise, the offense looked fine when the offensive line could protect and run block. The skill players look legitimately talented. I already covered Carr. Nagel was good. Macan Wilson has some tools. Justin Jackson can make a pile of wood chips into stylish Ikea desk with Scotch tape while wearing handcuffs. The line just couldn’t sustain that level of play for more then a couple plays (other than the first drive when everyone was fresh). That has to change once Big Ten play starts.

Jack Mitchell

Grade: D+

“AAAAARRRRRGGGHHHHHHHHH!” - my reaction to any Jack Mitchell field goal attempt this point.

Thankfully, he avoids the dreaded F because he made one from 40 yards out. Sure, I didn’t actually see it because I buried my head in my hands as a counter-jinx, but supposedly the statsheet says he made one.

Come on Jack Mitchell!

At least he was slightly better than Duke’s A.J. Reed (0/3 FGA, missed 1 XP in his last two games combined). I can’t continue being worried whenever Northwestern has to kick a field goal from 30-yards out. It’s not healthy.

Other grades:

Hunter Niswander: B- Did his job, but we saw some regression to the mean from Hunter the Punter. Fully expecting a major bounceback and seven 60-yard punts against Nebraska.

Macan Wilson: A- This guy is a legitimate deep threat and YAC guy. He is quick enough to beat many defensive backs and has good hands as well. It’s good to see him finally getting opportunities; his 35-yard catch-and-run showed his wheels are legit.

Solomon Vault: A- Finally, a big play for Vault at just the right time. He gets a good grade because that’s what he’s there for.

Defense

Overall Grade: A-

This was the complete defensive performance that Northwestern has been waiting for. Remember when Western Michigan went 11 for 21 on third and fourth down? Duke went 6 for 20 in those situations. As Pat Fitzgerald noted, Northwestern tackled better and played like an organized team, which had been lacking during the Western Michigan game. There were nitpicks, yes, but holding a Power 5 team to 7 points in non-garbage time and forcing a couple turnovers is exactly what Northwestern needed in this situation. It still wasn’t up to the standards of Northwestern’s defense last year (the game at Wisconsin may never be topped), but given the circumstances, the defense looked ready to compete again.

Trae Williams and Montre Hartage

Grade: A-

There were times, mostly during Duke’s 99-yard touchdown drive in the first half, that Williams and Hartage looked completely overmatched by Duke receivers Anthony Nash and T.J. Rahming. However, they rallied and really turned it on in the second half despite the absence of a consistent pass rush. Rahming and Nash had their moments, but they were met by an equal number of pass breakups and good coverage from Williams and Hartage on the outside.

I’m giving them an A- because nobody expected them to play this well. When Kyle Queiro was ruled out, people on this site expected Duke to throw for like, 500 yards or something. That didn’t even come close to happening. Part of that was Daniel Jones’ inaccuracy, but Hartage and Williams were perfectly fine in the secondary and started to dominate the Duke passing game in the third and fourth quarters.

For a pair of cornerbacks with two starts between them who nobody outside of Northwestern football fanatics had heard of, that’s really impressive. And they didn’t even have that long to prepare. Say what you want about Northwestern’s coaching staff, but whomever coaches and develops these secondary players deserves an extension or two. If this was a Nick VanHoose/Matt Harris unit, it probably would have been a B/B+. But for Trae Williams and Montre Hartage, an A- is warranted.

Defensive Front:

Pass rush

Grade: C-

For the third consecutive game, Northwestern’s pass rush was ineffectual at best. Against a Duke offensive line that got pushed around by Wake Forest last week, Northwestern’s pass rushers gave Duke QB Daniel Jones plenty of time to find his spots and open men downfield. Jones wasn’t able to convert many of these opportunities, but quarterbacks like Tommy Armstrong Jr. will have no trouble carving up Northwestern’s secondary with extended time to throw. Northwestern had 2 sacks and 1 quarterback hit. It has to do better than that.

Run defense

Grade: A-

On the other hand, Northwestern’s run defense was stout. The wheels really started turning for the Northwestern run defense during the second half of the Illinois State game and it continued to work well against Duke. Duke averaged 3.44 yards per carry, but again, that stat is a lie, as the number was greatly inflated by Duke’s final drive. Duke could get nothing on the ground in the second half and prime running back Jela Duncan only managed 53 yards for the game. While the linebacking corps certainly helped a great deal (see below), good run stoppers like C.J. Robbins and Xavier Washington helped. Joe Gaziano also did a very good job in stopping the run, even if his pass rushing skills still need to be developed.

Linebackers

Grade: A-

Anthony Walker played well in this game, which automatically upgraded Northwestern’s defense into an above-average unit. He still wasn’t at 100 percent and his downfield coverage could have used some work, but he was at around 87 percent. And 87 percent of Anthony Walker is better than most college linebackers, so this position group thrived. With Jaylen Prater having yet another stellar game and Nate Hall contributing as well, Northwestern’s linebackers were able to limit Duke’s running game and make Daniel Jones work. This was not a good outcome for Duke, and Northwestern’s defense eagerly took the benefits.

Godwin Igwebuike and Jared McGee

Grade: A-

I’ll keep this one short. Igwebuike had a huge pick and played a fine game at safety. He was really helping out Williams in particular, and he was able to make a significant impact. Godwin’s a veteran and easily Northwestern’s second-best defensive player. Meanwhile, for a redshirt freshman making his first real start, Jared McGee was solid. Who led the team in tackles this week? Jared McGee. Most importantly, without Queiro, Mayo and Harris the secondary survived, and Jared McGee was a big part of that.