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Defense falls apart in brutal loss to Duke

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The 21-point Blue Devil spurt that followed Jared McGee's ejection doomed the Wildcats.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

DURHAM — With the first quarter winding down, the patchwork seal broke.

Then a Lake Michigan-sized rush of water flowed into the boat that is Northwestern football.

Then the boat sunk.

The patchwork seal was a secondary that featured Kyle Queiro as an outside cornerback with Jared McGee and Godwin Igwebuike lurking in their traditional safety spots, with JR Pace filling in on passing downs and bumping Igwebuike down to the slot.

Those plans didn't last long, thanks to some controversy.

With Duke deep in Northwestern territory, McGee shot over to his left, breaking up a Daniel Jones pass that eventually fell in the hands of Igwebuike running the other way. McGee launched with his head, though, the official deemed. He was dinged with a targeting call, which nullified the interception and ejected McGee. The call shellshocked Northwestern and energized Duke.

The call appeared to be pretty soft — McGee didn't fully lead with his head — but there was helmet-to-helmet contact. Debate the ejection part of the targeting rule all you want, but that's the rule.

"We work hard to teach the guys about the strike zone, the strike zone's the letters to the knees." head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Obviously that was out of the strike zone, so we've gotta coach better there. That's the right rule in our game, I believe in that rule."

What mattered was that McGee was gone, and what could've been a momentum-swinging red zone turnover turned into a Duke touchdown just two plays later by way of Jones's legs.

The ejection forced Queiro back to safety, and pushed Trae Williams — who dressed for the game but was expected to participate in an emergency role — to make his 2017 debut after achilles surgery back in the spring. Quite frankly, the sirens were sounding.

Just over two-and-half minutes after Jones put the Blue Devils on the board, Williams fell down in one-on-one coverage and Duke receiver Chris Taylor walked into the end zone on a 52-yard sucker-punch.

It wasn't that McGee's absence alone caused the defense to implode, but that is what happened after he left the game.

Duke hit Northwestern with an ambush of 21 unanswered points at the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second, a stretch where Jones facilitated the offense like he was Tyus Jones at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

It was clear at the end of the Nevada game in Week 1 that the secondary was decimated, and corners Brian Bullock and Marcus McShepard's absences Saturday accentuated that disheartening reality. It's harder to put safeties down in the box when the corners are shaky, so it was incredibly difficult for Mike Hankwitz's defense to defend the read-option with Jones.

"We were pretty good on [run-pass options] early, and then we kind of backed off of them a bit," Fitzgerald said. "When we got a little more aggressive, it seemed like it worked out a little better."

Though there were some assignment problems on the read-options, a lot of the general miscues were failing to win individual battles or get off of blocks.

"They knew what we were running, we knew what they were running," said linebacker Paddy Fisher, who recorded 18 tackles in the loss. "We've gotta work on getting downhill, getting into the backfield."

From the beginning of the second quarter on, the tackling was poor. Short gains turned to medium gains, and medium gains turned to big ones. The defense rarely tallied multiple successes in a row.

"We overran the ball, our angles, our open-field tackling was as bad as I've seen," Fitzgerald said.

Part of the tackling woes likely stemmed from fatigue; the Duke offense went 15-of-22 on third down and held the ball for over 41 minutes. Northwestern's offense went 1-of-10 on third down, which made matters worse.

It's unclear when McShepard, Bullock and redshirt freshman Roderick Campbell will come back, but their returns can't come soon enough. Northwestern was already running out of options in the back end, and McGee getting taken out of the equation early on made an already arduous task even tougher.

The game itself, albeit a deflating one, came on the road against a Power 5 opponent. It won't impact Northwestern's Big Ten West chances. But it makes a scenario in which NU beats either Wisconsin or Penn State look increasingly unlikely. The weaknesses that have plagued the defense in recent weeks — a depleted cornerback group and an underwhelming pass-rush — don't look they're going away anytime soon.