Nagel was Northwestern’s best receiver all game, consistently beating man coverage and getting open for his quarterbacks, particularly Clayton Thorson. His 12 catches and 133 yards kept NU moving in the right direction, and several of his catches were important drive-extenders. After a quiet Week 1, it was good to see Nagel have success against a good pass defense.
“For me personally, I think I was doing a good job moving eyes and creating separation on man-to-man coverage trying to open up the quarterback and the offense,” he said after the game. We agree.
Larkin is Northwestern’s best offensive player right now, and it isn’t particularly close. He’s had big runs in both of the two games this season, and has shown both elusiveness and power as a runner. Against Duke, he proved his worth as a receiver, catching seven passes for 55 yards. He had 31 total touches Saturday, but probably needs the ball more. He provided the spark on NU’s only scoring drive of the day:
We're one drive in, and @DEUCE__8 has already gashed the Duke defense for 46 yards.— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 8, 2018
He finished the job with a @NUFBFamily TD: pic.twitter.com/4vlX3Ydhbq
It was tough sledding for Larkin in the second half, but that wasn’t really his fault. He also probably would’ve seen more carries had Northwestern not been trailing.
Gaziano led the Big Ten in sacks last year, but didn’t receive a First Team All-Big Ten nod going into this season. The junior said postgame that he doesn’t really pay attention to the outside noise, but he’s playing like there’s a significant chip on his shoulder, with two equally impressive sacks against the Blue Devils. He’s one of the best pass-rushers in the Big Ten and is well on his way to another strong season. When Northwestern was trying to get back into the game in the second half, Gaziano’s timely sacks helped the defense get off the field.
Honorable mentions: James Prather, Blake Gallagher, Mike Hankwitz’s second-half adjustments, September football weather
If it feels like this happens every year, you’re right. After the scripted drives ended, Northwestern’s offensive line once again struggled to keep its quarterbacks on their feet.
“We have to protect and give [the receivers] that little nanosecond longer to get open,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “When we’re throwing the ball at times, the timing and the rhythm is off. Offensive football, when the timing and rhythm is off, is just really ugly. It is like bad backyard football playing with your buddies, and you have no timing and rhythm and that’s what it looks like at times. It all starts up front, and I’m not pinning the blame on the O-line, but it looks like we had guys that just did not perform very well today.”
That just about sums it up. Tackles Rashawn Slater and Blake Hance both left the game early with injuries, forcing Gunnar Vogel and Ethan Wiederkehr into game action. The line struggled before the injuries, though, and the quarterbacks did not have adequate time on several significant plays, including fourth and goal from the Duke four yard line. Speaking of the quarterbacks...
Clayton Thorson/TJ Green
Both Clayton Thorson and TJ Green received extensive playing time yesterday, but neither used it particularly effectively. They threw interceptions – both poor decisions – on back-to-back drives in the second quarter, and couldn’t muster a single scoring drive between them in the second half. As previously mentioned, neither had a ton of time to throw, but they didn’t look sharp regardless of the levels of pressure they faced. Rotating between the two players appears to have an adverse effect on the offense getting into a rhythm. According to Fitz, Thorson’s medical limitations means there’s nothing to be done in that regard.
“I wish I had control over that, I’m just told whether or not 18 [Clayton Thorson] is in or 18 is out,” he said. “That’s what I’m told from the medical team and when he’s in he plays, and when he’s out, he’s out.”
It remains to be seen when Thorson will have the opportunity to play a full game, though the team has a bye following next week’s matchup with Akron.
Duke quarterback Daniel Jones had his way with Northwestern’s back four, routinely beating both corners and safeties with play-fakes before firing passes deep. Uncharacteristically, Montre Hartage got beat for a long pass, and Greg Newsome II, who seems to have supplanted Trae Williams as the No. 2 corner, gave up a 52-yard touchdown on a deep slant.
“Yeah, a young pup giving up a post,” Fitzgerald said of Newsome. “His eyes are stuck on two, which probably means they were back in the backfield. He knew exactly what happened, and gave up leverage, it’s a Cover 4 beater. Run a ten yard hitch to occupy the safety, throw the post over the top. As I told him when he came over, welcome to college football. This happens to a lot of guys, you have to learn quick and have a short memory.”
“And he did. He almost had a pick that could have changed momentum around. He is going to learn and he’s going to be better because of it. He’s the guy that’s won the job at this point, and I have great confidence in him. I thought his compete level went up after that play, which is the hallmark of a really special football player, especially out there on the edge.”
Honorable mentions: Cam Green, September matchups against Duke, season outlook