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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern falls 30-23 to Duke after disastrous first half

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It may have been one of NU’s worst first halves ever.

Courtesy of Northwestern Football

DURHAM, N.C. — It was a valiant comeback effort, but for the second time this season, Northwestern dug itself into a hole that was too big to overcome.

The Wildcats (1-2, 0-1 B1G) fell 30-23 to the Duke Blue Devils (2-1) on Saturday afternoon in a matchup that featured all three quarterbacks on the depth chart, a 27-point first-half deficit and eight total turnovers.

Just like the Michigan State game, Jim O’Neil’s defense got off to a rocky start but cleaned up its act in the second half. However, it was Mike Bajakian’s offense that handed the ball away five times, resulting in 19 Duke points that ultimately determined the outcome.

Andrew Marty was NU’s most successful quarterback of the day, finishing 11-for-16 for 151 yards, three total touchdowns and a fumble. Hunter Johnson had a rough outing in his third start of the season, going 6-for-16 for 75 yards with three interceptions and a fumble. Ryan Hilinski came in for the final few minutes after Marty went out with an upper-body injury and went 2-for-7 for 34 yards.

Evan Hull led the position players with 80 all-purpose yards while Peter McIntyre led the defenders with 15 total tackles.

Northwestern couldn’t have started its first road game much worse, as Duke took a 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the game. The Wildcats went three and out on their first two drives, while Duke’s Mataeo Durant found the end zone twice.

On their third drive of the game, the ‘Cats recorded their first first down. Hunter Johnson found Malik Washington for a small gain to move the chains and followed it up with a 44-yard bomb to Bryce Kirtz. Despite the rocky offensive start, Northwestern found its way to the red zone, but on 3rd and goal from the two-yard line, Lummie Young IV stripped the ball from Johnson, and Duke recovered the fumble.

The Blue Devils then drove 84 yards into Wildcat territory once again, but the Wildcats got a glimmer of hope when Durant fumbled on the three-yard line and Brandon Joseph recovered the ball in the end zone. However, the momentum quickly shifted back towards Duke when Jeremiah Lewis intercepted Johnson a few plays later, setting up a nine-yard Jordan Moore touchdown to put the Blue Devils up 21-0.

After a dismal first quarter, Northwestern had another chance to get on the board to start the second quarter. But on his first throw of the quarter, Johnson was picked off for the second time, which resulted in a 23-yard Charlie Ham field goal. Duke led 24-0 two minutes into the second.

Northwestern then forced Duke’s first punt of the game and proceeded to drive into Blue Devil territory once again. But all momentum was lost again, as Johnson threw his third interception of the game. Duke hit another field goal with two minutes remaining in the second, extending its lead to 27.

For Northwestern’s final drive of the half, Marty took Johnson’s spot and immediately turned things around on offense. He drove the ‘Cats 75 yards downfield in six plays and found Jacob Gill wide open for a 31-yard touchdown, NU’s first points of the day. However, they left too much time on the clock for Duke, as Ham hit a career-long 50-yarder to give his team the 30-7 lead at the half.

Northwestern couldn’t stay composed on either side of the ball for the first 30 minutes, as it gave up 420 yards and 30 points while turning it over four times and scoring on just one of its eight drives. Duke scored on six of its eight possessions.

The third quarter was a different story. Marty again marched the Wildcats 71 yards into Duke territory and capped off the drive with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Marshall Lang. On Duke’s next drive, Rod Heard recorded his second forced fumble of the game, as Durant coughed it up on their own seven. A quarterback sneak from Marty gave Northwestern its third consecutive touchdown and cut the Duke lead to 30-20.

Northwestern’s momentum kept growing. Chris Bergin intercepted Holmberg at the Duke 43, giving Northwestern great field position, but they couldn’t convert on a fourth-down attempt and handed the ball back to Duke. However, a missed field goal from Ham gave the ‘Cats the ball back at their own 34.

With solid field position early in the fourth, Marty broke away for a sizable gain, but he was stripped from behind, and Duke recovered. Marty was injured on the play, and Hilinski became NU’s third signal-caller of the day.

Hilinski led Northwestern in one final drive that resulted in a 25-yard Charlie Kuhbander field goal to cut the lead to a touchdown. After a Duke completion to Eli Pancol for a first down, the hosts ran out the clock to solidify their victory. The Wildcats’ defense stepped up to hold the Blue Devils scoreless in the second half, but their offense couldn't close the gap at the end.

Northwestern returns home next week to face Ohio University at 11 a.m. CST, its final nonconference game of the season.