When No. 23 Northwestern arrived in Durham this weekend for a matchup with the Duke, the Wildcats found themselves listed as underdogs despite facing an unranked opponent. But after a 19-10 victory over the Blue Devils on Saturday afternoon, don’t expect anyone to look past the ‘Cats again this season.
Despite a rough outing by redshirt sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, Northwestern managed to overwhelm Duke with another impressive defensive performance.
The first half was basically a punt-fest, as the Blue Devils prevented NU from getting much offense going on the ground. Thorson was unable to establish any rhythm throwing the football, as Northwestern racked up three-and-out after three-and-out.
But with frustration mounting on offense, the ‘Cats were forced to rely on the defensive playmakers that have carried them all season.
Sophomore stalwarts Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike made several big plays, but it was senior defensive end Dean Lowry who really stole the show on defense.
Bringing constant pressure off the edge, Lowry made a game-changing play late in the first half, picking off a Thomas Sirk pass with Duke nearing a touchdown. He nearly scooped and scored later in the second quarter, on a pass that was eventually ruled incomplete. After a Jack Mitchell field goal, the ‘Cats found themselves trailing 7-3 going into halftime.
But that lead would hold for approximately seven more seconds, or however long it took Solomon Vault to rumble 98-yards for the ‘Cats first touchdown of the afternoon.
That would prove to be the game-winning touchdown, except it didn’t feel that way, as Duke continued to threaten in a back-and-forth second half.
For long stretches on Saturday, the ‘Cats defense was the only thing keeping Northwestern in the game. This is a unit that had to replace some real playmakers during the summer, with Chi Chi Ariguzo, Jimmy Hall and Ibraheim Campbell departing for the NFL. But after a stunning performance in the opener, where they held Stanford without a touchdown, these guys showed up again in Durham.
Sirk never seemed comfortable in the pocket, and while he used his dual-threat ability to escape pressure, Sirk was never able to beat the Wildcats deep.
With the ‘Cats looking to cushion their lead, Warren Long helped put the game away with a 55-yard touchdown scamper that gave Northwestern some breathing room with a 19-10 lead.
Fitzgerald was adamant throughout the offseason that the ‘Cats would use all their running backs in this season, and with performances like this, fans are beginning to understand his logic.
In case you’re wondering, nobody expected Northwestern to be this good in 2015. The ‘Cats are suddenly a legitimate threat to compete not just for a bowl appearance, but maybe even to make some noise in the Big Ten.
NU returns to Evanston on Saturday for a primetime matchup with Ball State at Ryan Field.