Another weekend of Northwestern football has come and gone. Even with tempered expectations, Saturday’s 38-14 loss to Duke was disappointing on the heels of a celebratory home win against UTEP a week prior. Unlike Tim Robbins’ character in “Bull Durham,” Northwestern’s trip to Durham did not unlock untapped potential or prove the team to be worthy of a higher level of competition. Instead, in this overextended metaphor centered around a 1988 baseball romantic comedy, the ‘Cats were more akin to Kevin Costner’s character, Crash Davis, left dejected and forced to wonder if the opposing talent was too much to keep up with.
Anyways, that’s enough of the wrong sport (with a final shoutout to Susan Sarandon). Here are five things we learned from Northwestern’s defeat in Durham:
Slow starts are becoming a worrying trend
The Wildcats just keep finding themselves digging out of self-made holes. In all three games this season, the ‘Cats have surrendered opening drive touchdowns, quickly falling into seven-point deficits. These sleepy starts have extended longer than the opening drive. Through three contests, Northwestern has been outscored 41-14 in first halves. In the UTEP game, the team was able to overcome this with an unforgettable 31-point second half, but Northwestern does not have the fortune of playing the Miners every week. To compete in Big Ten play, the Wildcats will have to straighten out their woes in the opening minutes, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
The team has improved on the money downs
Coaches will tell you that games are won and lost on third and fourth downs. It’s not a universal truth that the team with the higher third down success rate will go on to win, but it’s usually a good indicator. On Saturday, Northwestern’s offense converted nine of 17 third down attempts (52.9%) including one touchdown drive in the second quarter that featured three of such plays. Against a Duke defense that is no slouch (check out the Clemson game), this is an encouraging trend. Unlike last year, when a third-and-long felt like a death sentence for a drive, this year’s squad makes those conversions feel far more attainable.
Although on the other side of the ball, Duke also converted over 50% of its third downs (5-for-9), the defense did get a clutch stop on a fourth-and-one, marking their third fourth-down stuff in the past two weeks.
Chunk plays will make or break the Wildcats
There is something to be said about having an offense that can dink-and-dunk its way down the field, mixing runs and passes to eat clock and demoralize a defense. But building an offense around that mindset is not sustainable — maybe you get one of those drives a game, but other than that you’re facing an uphill battle to remain on schedule and never get behind the chains. In other words, any successful offense needs big plays to work.
On Saturday, Northwestern had just two plays that accumulated 15 or more yards, one of which came in garbage time, once the game was already out of hand. Duke, on the other hand, had 12 such plays totaling 284 yards total. These came via ground and air, with Northwestern’s defense struggling to find any way to stop the Blue Devil offense. According to StatBroadcast, Northwestern was 0-for-6 on passes that traveled 15 or more yards downfield, bringing its season total to 3-of-20 on these deep throws. This is the key to unlocking the offense, which will be crucial heading into conference play.
Having patience with Ben Bryant may be rewarding
I’m not trying to zag here, but I came away from Saturday feeling more encouraged than not from Ben Bryant’s performance. The interception was ugly, but Bryant played generally well on the road against a good team, even if the box score doesn’t show it. I mentioned above the team’s improvement on third downs, and that is in large part thanks to Bryant’s decisiveness and accuracy, which were on display a few times on Saturday afternoon.
Bryant was surgical attacking the outside parts of the field on timing routes. On mid-range passing concepts, Bryant showed anticipation and poise, zipping the ball in to complete 8-of-11 passes on outside-the-hash throws between five and 14 yards. Those eight completions led to 92 yards, almost 75% of Bryant’s total aerial production on the day. It might be easy to say that Brendan Sullivan deserves a chance to start, and although Sully has been the undisputed king of meaningless fourth-quarter football this year, continued faith in Bryant should pan out in the long-run.
Riley Leonard is the real deal
Yes, this is a Northwestern site, but we’re all college football fans here, right? As frustrating as it was to watch unfold in real time, with a few days of separation, it’s hard not to be impressed with Duke’s quarterback and see why NFL scouts are projecting him to make the jump. Leonard picked apart a quality Northwestern secondary, completing 13 of his first 15 passes. Leonard finished with 219 passing yards on the day before he was relieved of his duties in the fourth, but where the Blue Devil did most of his damage was on the ground, where he added 97 yards and two scores. On several occasions, the signal-caller turned would-be sacks into positive gains that disheartened the Wildcat defense. I mean, seriously, look at this ridiculousness:
Riley Leonard entered beast mode pic.twitter.com/zeTP7DRJs0— Duke Football (@DukeFOOTBALL) September 16, 2023
In a draft class loaded with quarterbacks, Leonard has entered his name into the conversation. This whole Duke squad is legit, and it has a real chance to compete in the ACC this season. Most likely, Leonard is the best quarterback the ‘Cats will face all season, and although that doesn’t excuse the loss or giving up 38 points, it serves as a learning opportunity. If nothing else, you can be sure you’ll see a few defenders wearing purple in the highlight package ESPN shows whenever Leonard gets drafted into the pros.