After a thrilling victory in Dublin to open up the season, Northwestern football failed to replicate that energy or the result against Duke in Evanston. The ‘Cats dropped their home opener in a game that should leave a sour taste in fans’ mouths. Here’s what went right and what went wrong at Ryan Field today:
Charlie Mangieri’s absence in the tight end corps at the beginning of this season due to injury has gone largely unnoticed thanks to Gordon. The junior was able to have an impact on this game, including a spectacular one-handed catch in the first quarter and forced defensive pass interference on a third and 11 that would eventually lead to the ‘Cats’ first touchdown. He continued into the second half and remained a consistent target for Ryan Hilinski when his wide-out options weren’t there. Gordon has a role on this team and he showed that today, finishing with five receptions for 78 yards.
Evan Hull’s versatility
The junior running back is not only establishing himself as Northwestern’s number one running back but becoming one of their best weapons in the passing game as well. Hull was constantly able to turn minimal gains into efficient ones, adding 167 total yards-after-catch to move the ‘Cats further up the field. He was a target for Hilinski in crucial situations, eventually earning a career-high 14 receptions for 213 yards and a touchdown on 17 targets. The Duke defense had trouble bringing him down due to his shiftiness and lateral movement, something they may not have been prepared for in the backfield. Obviously, he would have liked that final play back, but it's safe to say Hull was one of the main reasons Northwestern was in the game until the final whistle.
Garnett Hollis Jr.
Hollis Jr. looked the part in Northwestern’s home opener, filling in for starting cornerback A.J. Hampton Jr. since he went down in the first quarter against Nebraska. Though the Sky Team is banged up, with Coco Azema taking the day off as well, the junior was able to make a few good hits and one of the craziest end-zone interceptions you will see. Though he was shaky at times with the rest of the group, Hollis Jr. did impress in the secondary.
Honorable Mentions: Mid-game defense, Ryan Hilinski, Jeremiah Lewis, Adetomiwa Adebawore
Jim O’Neil’s defense
From the start of the game, Northwestern’s defense was dominated in the trenches. The ‘Cats’ front four, or even seven, was outmatched by Duke, as the Blue Devils were constantly able to open holes in the Northwestern defense to allow backs such as Jordan Waters and Jaylen Coleman to have their ways in the running game. This was the same in the pass game, as Riley Leonard was able to have his way and find open receivers due to the time he had in the pocket. Both A.J. Hampton and Coco Azema were sorely missed, despite a solid performance from second-string DB Garnett Hollis Jr., as Duke capitalized with 240 yards and a score through the air by the final whistle.
Northwestern’s running game was a massive step down from the one that rushed for over 200 yards against Nebraska, as the ‘Cats only tallied 76 yards on the ground today in Evanston. Though Evan Hull was a weapon in the passing game, he wasn’t well supported by the O-line on the ground. Cam Porter had a promising return in Dublin, but his first game at Ryan Field since 2020 saw him constantly tackled at the line of scrimmage. While this was partially due to his line also having much less success than Week Zero, the junior running back could not establish consistency against the Duke defense, only having 13 yards on 11 carries.
Malik Washington (before the fourth quarter)
Washington came into the season as the number one receiver for the ‘Cats, but today he was not able to make much of an impact when he was needed early on. The junior finished with seven catches for 51 yards, and a lot of that production came off screen passes thrown his way and receptions late in the game. Washington was almost a non-factor in the vertical passing game, and for someone who has shown he can be a reliable weapon for Northwestern, he was all-around disappointing today. Thankfully Gordon and Hull were able to pick up much of the slack on receiving, but Washington, along with the rest of the WR corps, will need to step up and give Hilinski more options moving forward.
Honorable Mentions: Starting slow, Mike Bajakian’s play-calling, the Fox broadcast, Northwestern’s tackling, chunk plays on defense