EVANSTON, Ill. — Whatever luck of the Irish remained from two weekends ago disappeared into the warm, late summer air at Ryan Field today. With it went Northwestern’s hopes to start the season undefeated through its non-conference slate after falling to Duke 31-23 in the 2022 home opener.
Mike Elko’s Blue Devils had no plans to relinquish its winning streak against the ‘Cats, which now amounts to four straight victories since 2017. Duke was led by Riley Leonard, who completed 13 of 24 attempts, along with receivers Jalon Calhoun and Eli Pancol, who combined for 214 yards against Northwestern’s secondary.
For the ‘Cats, running back Evan Hull pulled in a stat-line most wideouts would be envious of, with 213 yards and a score receiving to go with 65 and a touchdown on the ground, while Thomas Gordon earned 78 yards on five catches a game after injuring his shoulder. Both of them pulled through in the absence of a sturdy wide receiving core and lack of running game, but their efforts alone weren’t enough.
Northwestern’s first drive was likely not what Fitz nor Hilinski intended, going three and out immediately after a powerful first down run from Hull in their own half. Luke Akers did not appear warm quite yet either, his first punt floating only 38 yards and landing near the Duke 25.
A slew of missed tackles plagued the ‘Cats on the next drive. It took the Blue Devils less than three minutes to traverse 77 yards, with running back Jordan Waters and Calhoun leading the way on the ground and through the air. Jaylen Coleman eventually punched in the first touchdown of the game, putting Duke up seven early.
The Hull-Porter tandem did most of the heavy lifting on the next drive, and tight end Thomas Gordon provided some much-needed yardage himself with a one-handed grab to put the ‘Cats in field-goal range. That’s where they would stay, as Adam Stage, in his second week starting for the injured Jack Olsen, missed his 38-yard attempt wide right to keep NU off the board with just over five minutes remaining in the first.
Jim O’Neil’s defense was unable to keep it close, allowing Duke to score from 42-yards out on a rushing play at the end of the next drive. After a few short runs helped the Blue Devils climb up the field, Waters carved up NU’s secondary after breaking through the line and charged right into the end-zone for a 14-0 lead.
The Wildcats couldn’t get out of their own half on the ensuing drive, but a successful Akers punt and a solid tackle by Ray Niro III pinned Duke on their own 10. It seemed as though the defense was holding strong, but on third and six on his own 14, Leonard dished out a pass down the right sideline to Pancol, who took it 81 yards into the red zone, and a questionable pass interference call on Cam Mitchell tacked on more from there. It was then Waters who broke through for a three-yard rushing touchdown, sending the ‘Cats down three scores at the beginning of the second.
Hilinski and his arm finally answered the next drive. Utilizing receivers Bryce Kirtz, Malik Washington, Genson Hooper Price and Gordon, who earned a defensive pass-interference call to send the ‘Cats into the red zone, Hilinski captained the ship 75 yards down the field. Then, Hull earned NU’s first points, barreling through Duke’s line to bring the score to 21-7 Duke.
The defense finally stopped Duke coach Mike Elko’s hot offense after Adetomiwa Adebawore pulled out a strip-sack for an eight-yard loss. Duke recovered it but couldn’t save the drive, eventually punting it away for the first time all game. Northwestern’s running game stalled on the next drive, but a roughing the passer call and Marshall Lang-earned PI call — both on third down — helped move the ‘Cats toward the end zone. Nevertheless, Hilinski couldn’t convert to Washington on fourth down and turned it over to the Blue Devils at their own 32 with just over six minutes remaining in the half.
O’Neil’s defense looked to be coming alive at this point and stopped Duke on three straight downs, giving Hilinski and the offense a shot to cut the deficit before halftime. They would do so thanks to a successful Stage field goal after a solid drive marked by huge gains through the air by Gordon and Hull. The clock ticked down after the score and sent NU into the locker room down 21-10, the offense notching only 49 rushing yards on 22 attempts and the defense allowing a total of 234 yards in the half.
The second half looked like it would start similarly to the first after the Wildcat defense allowed Leonard and Duke to march all the way inside the Northwestern 10 on the first drive out. Then, junior Garnett Hollis Jr. grabbed a crucial, bobbling interception in the end-zone to halt the Blue Devils’ momentum and earn possession.
Northwestern’s offense, unfortunately, stifled its own momentum. The line was unable to keep pressure off Hilinski once in Duke’s half. He was brought down twice toward the end of the drive, the latter sack causing a fumble which Duke recovered. Luckily, the scoreless drought would continue for the Blue Devils as well, with Charlie Ham whiffing a 38-yard field goal at the other end after the turnover.
With the score still 21-10 toward the end of the third quarter, Mike Bajakian’s offense finally broke the seal. Two more catches from Gordon and another pass interference call pushed Northwestern to Duke’s 39, where Hull would continue his rampage with a quick catch and speedy run into the end zone. A failed two-point conversion only tacked on six to the total, but the Wildcats managed to make the score 21-16 by the start of the fourth.
Duke apparently was also done with the scoring drought and struck back. A 51-yard completion from Leonard to Calhoun took the Blue Devils to Northwestern’s 20, and shortly after, Jordan Moore, Duke’s backup quarterback, caught a touchdown pass to increase Duke’s lead with most of the fourth quarter remaining.
Hilinski failed to make anything out of the ‘Cats’ next drive, making it about 12 yards into Duke’s half before turning it over on downs once again, leaving the score at 28-16 in favor of the Blue Devils. Northwestern’s defense held Leonard and Duke well on the following drive and forced a punt with just under eight minutes remaining for the ‘Cats to catch up.
The offense wasted no time, and Hilinski found five different targets while marching up the field. Washington finally pulled in a sizeable gain of 14 in Duke’s half to put Northwestern in the red zone, and Donny Navarro pulled in another 14-yard pass for the score with 5:49 remaining.
Down 28-23, it was time for O’Neil’s defense to pull out a big stop and keep Duke from running out the clock. Thankfully, it did just that, forcing the Blue Devils to punt without reaching the first down marker. The offense regained possession on its own 25 with 4:23 to go.
However, instead of marching up the field and walking off with a win, Hilinski threw an interception on the third play of the drive, leaving Duke with the ball at Northwestern’s 34 with ample time to increase the lead. Though the ‘Cats were able to prevent a touchdown, there was little they could do to push Duke out of field-goal range, and Ham finished from 18 yards out to make it 31-23 with 1:18 on the clock.
It wasn’t quite over yet, though. Hilinski calmly completed three straight passes to Hull, Washington and Gordon for 46 combined yards to get Northwestern into Duke’s half. A short completion to Washington inched the ‘Cats closer, and then Hull picked up a 12-yard run looking towards the end zone...before fumbling it on the line and giving the Blue Devil’s possession, and in turn, the win, just before the clock timed out.
Now 1-1 on the season, Northwestern returns to Ryan Field next week, where it will take on in-state foes Southern Illinois at 11:00 A.M. CST.