DURHAM — After a slow start last week that resulted in a 10-point halftime deficit to Nevada, Northwestern needed to avoid a similar game against Duke, a much stronger opponent. They did not get that in Saturday’s 41-17 loss.
The Wildcats (1-1) were throttled and outmatched in the trenches and couldn’t do anything to stop Duke quarterback Daniel Jones in a shockingly bad effort in Durham. Jones racked up over 300 yards through the air, over 100 yards on the ground, and four total touchdowns against a depleted Northwestern secondary. Meanwhile, Clayton Thorson looked nothing like he did a week ago, throwing a pair of interceptions and completing just 11 of 29 passes for 120 yards before Matt Alviti relieved him in the fourth quarter.
Northwestern was held to 21 carries for 22 yards on the ground. The Wildcats’ best players were punter Hunter Niswander and kicker Charlie Kuhbander, who made a 40-yard field goal.
It was that kind of game.
Northwestern got on the board first with the 40-yard kick by Kuhbander, the second field goal of his career. It would be the Wildcats’ only lead of the day. Montre Hartage picked off a Jones overthrow on the next drive, the first interception the quarterback had thrown in 202 attempts. When Northwestern’s offense stalled off the turnover, Jones led Duke on 13-play, 80 yard touchdown drive to give the Blue Devils a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The most controversial moment of the game came on that drive on 1st-and-10 from Northwestern’s 12-yard line. Jones went for the end zone up the middle of the field and safety Jared McGee blew up the intended receiver. The ball popped in the air, falling into the hands of Godwin Igwebuike for a timely interception.
However, McGee was questionably called for targeting on the play which was reviewed and then confirmed. This was a seven-point swing when Jones ran it in from 11-yards out two plays later to put the Blue Devils on the board. Not to mention that the ejection of McGee further decimated an already depleted secondary.
After a three-and-out where the Wildcats managed only one yard, it didn’t take Duke long to build on a 7-3 lead. Four short completions later, Jones found Chris Taylor for an easy 52-yard touchdown. Taylor was untouched over the top as cornerback Trae Williams, who was playing his first series of the season, tripped in man coverage.
Northwestern came back on offense down 14-3 needing a lengthy scoring drive. When Thorson found Cameron Green for a first down, the drive had potential for points. But Green was stripped clean by Alonzo Saxton II and Jones engineered a nine-play, 37 touchdown capped off by his four-yard keeper on third and goal to extend the lead to 21-3.
From the midway point of the first quarter to the 3:30 mark in the second, Northwestern had five drives. They managed only 16 plays in those drives, including three three-and-outs.
With 1:35 remaining in the second quarter, the Blue Devils had taken the ball into Northwestern territory and opted to run a speed option. Jones pitched to Brittain Brown but Kyle Queiro flew down from the secondary, stripping Brown, and Paddy Fisher recovered the loose ball at Northwestern’s 46-yard line. It was the huge, timely turnover that Pat Fitzgerald’s team desperately needed.
Hoping for points before the half, Clayton Thorson manufactured his best drive of the game. It took Northwestern just five plays to go 54 yards, boosted by a 15-yard pass interference, a 14-yard reception by Flynn Nagel and a 13-yard catch by Jalen Brown, the first of his Northwestern career. Justin Jackson capped the drive with a five-yard touchdown run, bringing the score to 21-10 and giving the Wildcats a significant momentum boost heading into the half.
Thorson ended the half 9-for-20 for 99 yards and just 4.9 yards per pass, a far-cry from last week’s stellar performance when he had only 10 incompletions all game. He did complete passes to seven different receivers. The Wildcats managed little on the ground as well. Jackson had six carries for 16 yards in the half, with Jeremy Larkin adding two carries for nine yards. Given the shortcomings of the offense, going into the half down 11 was a favorable outcome for Northwestern. They were just 1-for-8 on third down; Duke was 7-for-10.
That momentum from the late first half touchdown carried over into the second half. Northwestern forced just its second three-and-out of the game, its first since Duke’s opening possession, capped off by a Joe Gaziano strip sack on third down. Although the Blue Devils recovered, a short punt gave Northwestern great field position, starting its first drive of the second half at its own 47.
A promising drive was wiped away when Thorson and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman miscommunicated on a curl route. Thorson threw behind the redshirt freshman who was expected the ball to lead him, and the result of the play was a devastating interception at the Blue Devils 32-yard line.
Northwestern’s defense bent but didn’t break, yielding a 55-yard drive but holding Duke to a 31-yard field goal.
The Wildcats promptly punted for the sixth time of the time, and Duke responded with a lengthy 15 play, 75 yard drive that spanned 5:10 and extended the lead to 31-10. T.J. Rahming hauled in four catches on the drive alone, giving him 12 receptions for 127 yards. Jones capped it off with a one-yard touchdown pass to Davis Koppenhager.
Three plays later, Northwestern was punting yet again. They managed only 15 first downs on the day. Duke had 34.
Duke’s offense showed no signs of slowing down, churning out a 13 play, 82-yard drive capped by an eight-yard scamper by Shaun Wilson. The score put Duke up 38-10, extending the game to four possessions early in the fourth quarter.
To make matters worse, Thorson was intercepted for the second time of the day on an attempted slant route. The Blue Devils kicked a short field goal prompting Fitzgerald to send his second-string offense onto the field. Matt Alviti took over at quarterback with Thorson taking a seat, finding freshman Kyric McGowan for 14 and 15-yard receptions and dropping a perfect ball down the sideline to Macan Wilson that the senior wideout could not hang onto.
Alviti responded on the very next play with a tremendous 33-yard strike to Riley Lees in the back of the endzone, the first touchdown pass in Alviti’s career.
This is Northwestern’s largest margin of defeat since Tennessee’s 45-6 rout in the Outback Bowl.