Northwestern finally did enough to win a football game. After two tight, disappointing losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State, NU took down Duke 24-13 in the third game of its season.
The Wildcats opened the game with an efficient 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 26-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Garrett Dickerson. The offensive line, which struggled heavily in the Illinois State loss last week, was able to give Thorson time and get push up front for Justin Jackson.
But NU’s offense stalled after that drive as the offensive line retracted to old habits, rendering the passing game inefficient and the running game obsolete. Duke was able to put a 99-yard TD drive together, and the score at halftime was grimly tied at seven.
After a few more three-and-outs to open the second half, the ‘Cats finally broke through. When Duke muffed a punt, NU took over with prime field position and wasted no time, completing a 44-yard TD pass to Solomon Vault. A Jack Mitchell field goal and a 58-yard TD pass to Austin Carr would put the game away for the Wildcats.
NU’s defense looked the best it had all season, and it showed in the ability to make some of the momentum-changing plays that made them so impressive last year. Godwin Igwebuike snagged a key interception, Anthony Walker forced and recovered a fumble as Duke was driving in the second half and Montre Hartage had some important pass breakups. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald credited the run defense, especially.
"When you can make a team one-dimensional, and we did that stopping the run, we have a chance to be pretty good," Fitzgerald said.
While the Wildcats didn’t do a fantastic job of turning these favorable defensive plays into points, the offense did enough - which is an improvement on the last two weeks. Thorson converted on some big throws, and his receivers reeled in important catches, getting in the end zone enough times to win the game.
So yes, the ‘Cats finally did enough. But with Nebraska up next week, will this kind of performance be enough in Big Ten play? Thorson had 320 yards and three TD’s, but was also an inefficient 18-of-39 with two interceptions. After a few big runs early, Jackson was only able to finish with 28 carries for 105 yards. The offensive line was extremely inconsistent, and is still very much a weakness.
The good news is that NU was finally able to record more yards and more time of possession that its opponent, something that has been hard to come by this season. Austin Carr had another big game with six catches for 135 yards and a TD, and has looked like a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver this year. The Wildcats have also straightened some of their defensive issues out since Western Michigan, and have started to make game-changing plays again.
If the defense can keep up its strong play, NU will be in Big Ten games, but it will need its offense to keep doing just enough to get victories. It's the same formula the 'Cats used to go 10-3 last year, and they will have to rely on a similar style of play to salvage what's left of their season.