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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s upsetting loss to Duke

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Is October here yet?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

After their first win of the season over the Indiana State Sycamores, Northwestern went on the road this weekend to take on the Duke Blue Devils. Like the game against Michigan State, Northwestern fell into a quick hole early and couldn’t dig themselves out, going down 27-0 by the end of the second quarter. Despite a valiant second half effort, the deficit proved to be too much to overcome for Northwestern. Here are five things we learned from the Wildcats’ loss to Duke.

The Hunter Johnson revenge tour looks like it’s over

After giving Northwestern fans a lot to be hopeful about in his season debut against Michigan State, Johnson looked a lot like his mistake-prone 2019 self in Durham. He had four turnovers before the start of the second half and completed just six passes for 75 yards and a QBR of 2.3 (!). Knowing how much Fitz emphasizes turnover-free football, it is no surprise that the Clemson transfer was subsequently benched for Andrew Marty.

Marty proceeded to drive the offense 75 yards down the field for a touchdown in his first drive. He went on to lead the offense to two more touchdowns before sustaining an injury in the beginning of the fourth quarter on a quarterback scramble. However, his stats speak for his performance; Marty threw for 151 yards and two touchdowns and added 44 yards and another score on the ground, all in just over a quarter’s worth of work. While he was by no means perfect, Marty was poised, decisive and generally accurate after taking over, something that Johnson simply was not in the first half.

The current status of Andrew Marty remains unclear, but it does not seem like the coaching staff has a lot of faith in Johnson at the moment. After Marty’s injury, third-string quarterback Ryan Hilinski entered the game, and despite a rocky start, he stayed in the game to finish the contest while Johnson looked on from the bench. While he could very well start against Ohio, Johnson’s short tenure as the starting quarterback seems to be over.

The defense needs to figure things out

Whether you want to blame it on Jim O’Neil, any of the players or even Pat Fitzgerald, it does not change the fact that the defense has looked abysmal so far this year. It has given up a total of 68 points against the two FBS teams that it has played, allowing opposing offenses to find success in almost all facets of the game, often breaking more than bending. (For context, Northwestern did not give up 68 combined points to its opponents until the sixth game of the 2020 season).

The defense did look good in the second half against Duke, as it prevented the Blue Devils offense from putting any points on the board. However, it still struggled to prevent big chunk plays, allowing Duke to convert on second or third-and-long time and time again. Northwestern gave up 562 total yards to the Blue Devils yesterday, and with a slate of Big Ten teams with more talented offenses on the horizon, something needs to change if the ‘Cats are going to win games in conference.

Gunnar Holmberg is legit

While his numbers might not pop off the page, Gunnar Holmberg has performed admirably for Duke so far this season. After dealing with injuries and serving as a backup quarterback during his time in Durham, he has finally been given the keys to the offense in 2021 and he has done a respectable job so far.

Holmberg has only thrown two touchdowns in three games, but he has done well to protect the ball and make plays when needed. The signal-caller has a 71% completion percentage, and his propensity to make positive plays happen was on full display against Northwestern. He converted big third downs, both through the air and with his legs, with the biggest conversion coming at the end of the game when Holmberg scrambled to keep the play alive and found Eli Pancol for a 16-yard pickup to seal the contest for the Blue Devils.

Cam Porter will have some competition in the backfield next year

One of the biggest worries headed into the season was whether or not the offense could still put points on the board due to Cam Porter’s injury. It’s only three games into the season, but so far the running backs that have shared reps in the backfield have performed well, and they are far from what is holding the offense back.

The running back by committee approach that Mike Bajakian has elected to go with has been effective thus far, with Evan Hull, Andrew Clair and Anthony Tyus III bringing a different look to the position. Hull has the biggest role in the committee at the moment; the sophomore has clearly taken his game to another level this year, where he has been effective in both the run and pass game. Clair and Tyus have both adapted to Big Ten play well, with the former being a graduate transfer whose speed and elusiveness have been impressive while the latter being a freshman who is a physical runner who can hit holes with pace.

With the offense struggling again against Duke, the running backs were the lone bright spot of the unit. They didn’t get a lot of work, but as a group, they rushed 21 times with an average of nearly six yards per carry.

Northwestern student attendance at games might suffer

The fact of the matter is that Northwestern is not and has never been a football school (at least not in the past half-century). While Northwestern has been very good at football in recent years, football has never been a defining part of the student culture in Evanston. There is no “White Out” like Penn State and Ryan Field has never even resembled the Big House or the Horseshoe. As older students and alumni know, when the football team is not good, students do not show up to games (see 2019).

While it remains to be seen how good or bad Northwestern football will be this year, there is not a lot of optimism around the team among new students thus far, and for good reason. Sophomores and upperclassmen moved into dorms this weekend, meaning that Northwestern’s campus should finally be filled with students for the first time in a year and a half. However, if Northwestern can’t win games, the Ryan Field student section could be more empty than full this year.