Northwestern finally climbed off the schneid and picked up its first win of the season, topping Duke 24-13.
It was not a pretty game and left the Wildcats with many of the same questions. But Northwestern executed and made big plays — including 320 passing yards from Clayton Thorson, a career high — and the defense stepped up time and time again with turnovers and big stops. Duke too was not fantastic executing at the end but Northwestern closed the door any time Duke began to threaten.
That was something different from the first two weeks. It is a sign the Wildcats can get back to their preseason expectations — although the margin for error now is much, much smaller.
From the opening drive, Northwestern held control of the game. The Wildcats marched down the field in a burst of rhythm and offense to score and take an early 7-0 lead. The Wildcats withstood turnovers and their own offensive anemia to score a victory.
Repeating that performance again with the schedule stiffening up in October will be a true trick.
For now Northwestern can enjoy its first win and a bit of optimism heading into conference season.
Here are three things we learned this week:
1 When Clayton Thorson goes big, Northwestern can too
Norhtwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson has deservedly been the focus of a lot of frustration this season. The sophomore has been unable to find a consistent rhythm. And despite his experience from last season, it is hard to tell if he has gotten better.
Thorson threw the ball 41 times last week. And, based on his talent alone, he should have been accurate enough to give Northwestern more than seven points — on a fourth-and-goal throw no less against FCS Illinois State.
Thorson though came through Saturday with his best performance (by yards, at least) of his short career. He completed 18 of 39 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions. The scoring passes were a 26-yard strike to Garrett Dickerson, a 44-yard pass to the speedy Solomon Vault and a 58-yard pass to Austin Carr.
Carr was a reliable Thorson safety valve with six receptions for 135 yards.
Thorson still was not particularly accurate or dominant. But it was also clear Northwestern is going nowhere if Thorson is not putting up some stellar numbers.
Duke was able to load the box and hold Justin Jackson down. Jackson had 94 yards on 28 carries. The Wildcats could not force things to Jackson successfully enough.
Thorson remains the key for Northwestern. He has to find a way to be effective. Again Duke he did.
2 Northwestern finds secondary depth
Just about anyone around Northwestern’s program will tell you there is more talent at Northwestern than there has ever been. The Wildcats especially have done a good job finding gems for the secondary.
That was put to the test Saturday with Matthew Harris and Kyle Queiro out. The Wildcats were down two critical starters against a struggling Duke team.
Godwin Igwebuike recorded an interception. Montre Hartage made some nice plays. As did Jared McGee. Without two of their key players, the Northwestern “sky team” still performed.
The Blue Devils had 279 yards passing on 48 pass attempts. Northwestern was not perfect.
The defense still had its issues. And the secondary was a part of it. There was definitely some unfamiliarity and a lack of discipline in gaining leverage to corral players for quick tackles. But considering how inexperienced and stretched the secondary was, Northwestern certainly could be content with the depth it showed and the talent it has.
3 Defense will be there… for how long?
The last two weeks, Northwestern’s defense has stepped up to the plate. The Wildcats gave up just nine points to the Redbirds and 13 points (six on a late-fourth quarter touchdown) to the Blue Devils. Even 22 points to Western Michigan does not sound terrible after the number that team did to Illinois on Saturday.
Like last year, the Wildcats are relying solely on their defense to keep them in games.
This group may not quite be at the level last year’s team was at. Anthony Walker admitted after the game he played the first two games with a knee injury suffered from camp and he is only now rounding into form. The defensive line does not quite get the same push and pressure in the backfield.
This Wildcat defense bends, but does not break.
Then again, Duke’s first touchdown drive was a 99-yard drive that looked incredibly easy. The Wildcats could still get overpowered. And it took a long time for Northwestern to gain distance from Duke in the second half.
The Blue Devils are not quite the best of the Big Ten that Northwestern will see in the next six weeks.
Northwestern’s defense will have a lot of work to do to be ready even for Nebraska on Saturday. The Wildcats are relying on them to be the anchor. And so far, they have done enough to give the Cats a shot at three wins. But how much more now that the schedule stiffens is very unclear.