Northwestern’s first play from scrimmage seemed like it was a sign of things to come. The Wildcats moved Jalen Brown in motion across the line and faked a handoff to Justin Jackson, handing the ball off to Brown on a jet sweep for a 15-yard gain.
It looked like the Wildcats were going to find the rhythm they needed to keep their good offensive feelings going. Even after the team punted on its first drive, the defense picked up a three-and-out, rallying strong and confidently to the ball.
The Wildcats were still a growing team and still had some rough edges but were moving the ball and getting stops and moving in the right direction. This is all anyone could hope for from the first road game of the year.
That first play, though, turned out to be the high point of the game. From seemingly that moment on, the Wildcats could not keep the Blue Devils out of their backfield. They could not even establish Justin Jackson. Thorson missed throws and threw bad interceptions as he faced constant pressure.
On the other side? Quarterback Daniel Jones had all day to throw and picked his receivers. When he did not, he outran the defense and found holes on the ground.
The Blue Devils dominated the Wildcats 41-17 at Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday in every phase and every way.
Northwestern gained only 191 total yards to Duke’s 538 total yards. The Wildcats rushed for only 22 yards as Thorson took five sacks in the game. Justin Jackson rushed for only 18 yards on an unfathomable seven carries. Northwestern’s best player had just eight touches the entire game, adding one catch for 24 yards.
Thorson was not much better. He threw for 120 yards on 11-for-29 passing. As good and efficient as he was in the win over Nevada, willing Northwestern to that win in the second half, Thorson was inefficient and off in this week’s game. Northwestern needed him or Jackson or someone to make a play, and they could not find it.
It was consistently Duke making all the plays, specifically Daniel Jones.
The Duke quarterback threw for 305 yards and rushed for 108 more. He had an answer for every Northwestern play. And no one seemed able to slow down the momentum. Not fully anyway.
Trailing 21-3 in the second quarter, Northwestern’s defense did make an adjustment. Tyler Lancaster began building some pressure and getting to the quarterback, forcing Jones into some poor throws. A turnover on a botched option pitch set Northwestern up for a score just before half time — a short scamper from Justin Jackson in his only highlight play of the day.
The Wildcats got a three and out and were driving to make it a one score game early in the third quarter. But Thorson threw an interception on the drive and Duke responded with a score. The rout was on from there.
Or, rather, it continued.
NU had many of the same problems it experienced last week. The offensive line struggled to create any type of running push, forcing NU to abandon the run game very early on. Unlike against Nevada, the offensive line struggled to get Thorson much throwing time. He struggled to find any kind of rhythm. And eventually, he began forcing throws and making mistakes.
Any big play was seemingly immediately negated by a turnover — including a fumble from Cameron Green where the defender ripped the ball out of his hands — or some other misstep. Northwestern could never keep things building and going toward a victory.
Unlike the previous week, there was no adjustment or big play to turn the tide. The Wildcats struggled from the start and could not get themselves going again. There was no play to be made.
Sure, the Wildcats have some extenuating circumstances. Marcus McShephard was out for the game, forcing safety Kyle Queiro to start at cornerback. That put Jared McGee at safety. And McGee left the game in the first quarter after an ejection on a dubious targeting call.
Northwestern’s secondary was thin and Duke took advantage all game long.
That was not an excuse. Certainly not for the Wildcats’ poor offense that could not stay on the field. Duke more than doubled NU’s time of possession and total plays.
The Wildcats really could not find a rhythm until Matt Alviti took over for Clayton Thorson and led a touchdown drive to Riley Lees late in the fourth quarter. The game was long over by then as an exhausted defense began missing tackles and failing to get the pressure that helped NU have a glimmer of hope in the second quarter.
Northwestern will have a lot to analyze and correct before next week’s game against Bowling Green. And then the real season begins after a bye week in Madison. That looms large over a Northwestern team with big expectations.
The Wildcats got knocked down a peg for sure Saturday in Durham. They are still waiting for someone to step up.