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Five things we learned from Northwestern’s loss vs. Duke

The Wildcats’ deficiencies revealed themselves in a tough defeat.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Following a bye week that offered Northwestern an emotional cooldown after a comeback win against Nebraska in Week Zero, the ‘Cats found themselves in a similar, down-early position against Duke on Saturday. This time, Pat Fitzgerald and Co. failed to complete the comeback, literally fumbling their chances away at the last possible moment. Now with reason to worry, here are five things NU can learn from moving forward.

1. Northwestern’s defense, for the life of it, can’t wrap up ball-carriers

There’s a reason the saying “don’t rain on the parade” exists. People try to extract good from nearly all situations — whether the occasion was truly good or not, it’s just instinct. In the heat of a thrilling win against Nebraska (more on the Huskers later), it was more comfortable to note the positives: Ryan Hilinski slinging bullseyes all afternoon, the defense nabbing the ball at only the most opportune times and the offensive line placing padlocks on the line of scrimmage.

The parade was a rejuvenating reminder of how much fun football can be. Nonetheless, a storm has been imminent ever since. Against UNL, there were instances where QB Casey Thompson evaded sacks left and right. The hurricane should’ve been forecasted then.

Instead, a sudden downpour nailed Ryan Field on Saturday, as members across the Northwestern defense missed tackles to a crippling extent. Perhaps you didn’t have the time to flick on the game? Browse YouTube for game highlights to watch three defenders squander chances at taking down Jordan Waters on a 42-yard touchdown run. Plays that might not have made the reel but still burdened the ‘Cats paper the play-by-play report (see: Jaylen Coleman and Waters turning multiple should-be no-gains into first downs).

The point isn’t too complex — the team can’t finish on tackles. Having flashed its teeth in Week Zero, the deficiency bared its chompers on Saturday, taking off NU’s head in the process. With Big Ten play looming, starring hard-nosed, run-it-down-your-throat type of offenses, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil will have to scurry to clean up his open-armed defense.

2. Evan Hull will always find ways to contribute — win or lose

Against Nebraska, Hull led Northwestern in rushing and finished second in receiving yards. It felt as though the junior running back had taken some Irish jig classes before putting on the pads at Aviva Stadium the way he evaded defenders.

In an even stronger showing, arguably a career outing, Hull put a flailing offense on his back. Corralling 14 receptions for 213 yards, Hull willed his team back into the game on more than one occasion. Notably, the back snagged a one-yard pass on 4th-and-3 before hurrying his way 39 yards into the endzone. Despite only averaging 3.8 yards per carry on 17 carries behind an offensive line that seemed to have lost its fortifying nature somewhere over the Atlantic on the plane ride back from Ireland, Hull legged his way to some clutch first downs.

Naturally, media outlets will likely only have time in their programming to show his fumble on Duke’s one-yard line — which, if scored, might’ve sent the ‘Cats to overtime — but Hull’s performance ascends that play. Yeah, Northwestern disappointed on a lot of fronts on Saturday. But Duke’s defense was also just good, plain and simple. The Blue Devils didn’t allow a point in the first five quarters of competition this year. Oh, and Duke forced two turnovers on downs, generated and recovered two fumbles and scooped an interception in the following three periods of action. In the face of an apparently stout unit, Hull’s ability to produce is demonstrative of his sky-high ceiling as a running back.

3. Mike Bajakian’s play-calling falters at all the wrong times

No need to load another metaphor about allowing good outcomes to overshadow bad developments; you get the point by now. Two weeks ago, questionable play calls splattered an otherwise flawless canvas presented by a precise offense. Foreshadowing his shortcomings against the Blue Devils, coordinator Mike Bajakian kept the shackles on the offense at times against the ‘Huskers, relying on Xander Mueller and Co. to deliver the lethal blow to the men in red.

Against Duke, Bajakian seemed to pound the ground game time after time in moments where Duke’s defensive line showed no signs of weakness. Once the third-year play caller entrusted Ryan Hilinski — a freshly crowned Big Ten offensive player of the week — to toss the rock, good things followed. Tight end Thomas Gordon revealed himself to be a distant relative of Spiderman, latching his fingers onto balls that seemed totally out of reach. The stripes were also generous to the ‘Cats, tacking on extra yards on passing plays with various unnecessary roughness and defensive pass interference penalties called against Duke.

It’s usually counterintuitive to critique an offensive coordinator for running the ball when such positive sentiment exists around his lead running back, but Hull is more than that: No. 26 has inserted himself as one of the most respected pass-catchers in this offense. As the season progresses, Bajakian will have to lean more on Hilinski’s arm in moments of turbulence, seeing as though the ground hosted an even more shaky path.

4. Coco Azema and A.J. Hampton are really, really important

As noted earlier, Bajakian left the burden of deal-closing on the defense in Ireland. Luckily, the unit was able to do just that. A clutch sack by Azema and now-absent tackles by Hampton helped the Wildcats secure their first win. The injury bug bit both starting defensive backs in the Week Zero win, though, making them unavailable for the home opener.

NU’s secondary struggled without the help in coverage. The unit allowed 30% more yards per reception without Azema and Hampton there to impede Blue Devil receivers. Perhaps the thickest, most dense nail in Northwestern’s coffin was its defense’s inability to get off the field on third down. The line between luck and skill is thin, and plays like Jalon Calhoun’s 51-yard reception off a tipped ball on third down (which would later lead to a Blue Devil score) reminds you of that fact. Azema frequents the grass between the hashes, and without speculating too much, it’s hard to imagine that lucky plays like Calhoun’s catch would’ve been quite as probable had the blazing safety been there to at least mitigate the yards following the reception. The severity of both player’s injuries is still foggy, but their one-week absence was enough to emphasize their necessity to this defense.

5. Nebraska just isn’t that good

It’s never a promising sign when pundits liken a Power Five team to, say, Georgia Southern. That’s where Northwestern has found itself now that the scrappy team from Statesboro, Ga. knocked off the Cornhuskers on Saturday by the same margin NU did a few weekends ago.

While there’s still merit to any win, especially one that mandated a resilient comeback, Nebraska is retrospectively a team that the ‘Cats really should’ve had no issue defeating. Head coach Scott Frost’s firing after his loss to the Eagles, who tugged a 2-6 conference record in the Sun Belt last year, drenches any remaining flicker in the fire lit by the Week Zero win. Now having dropped a game to Duke and only having a win against a likely fraudulent Big Ten opponent, Northwestern has plenty to prove heading into the rest of the season.