Northwestern performance a dud in home opener vs. Duke

    The first two games of the Northwestern Wildcats’ 2018 season look quite similar to their 2017 M.O. – a positive yet flawed performance in the opener, followed by a dud against the Duke Blue Devils. The result this time was a 21-7 victory for Duke (2-0), dropping Northwestern to 1-1 and ending their 9-game winning streak.

    Of course, the 2017 team went 9-2 for the rest of the year, turning the week two loss into an unseemly blip in an otherwise successful year. The problem this year? A repeat performance would require wins against two of four ranked opponents - #21 Michigan, #15 Michigan State, #5 Wisconsin, and #8 Notre Dame - in addition to an unblemished record in relatively evenly-matched opponents: Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. Looking ahead makes this loss all the more painful to stomach.

    Let’s start with the quarterback situation. Give credit where credit is due: the Duke defense is far more athletic than Purdue’s was, and they were relentless in creating pressure and in irritating wideouts Bennett Skowronek and Riley Lees (Flynn Nagel did just fine). However, both Clayton Thorson (22/38, 198 yds) and TJ Green (9/18, 84 yds) were inefficient in averaging about 5 yards per pass. Every Northwestern fan knows the offense is not built to be a constant deep threat, but a lack of creative play calling enabled Duke to focus on Jeremy Larkin, limiting his effectiveness after an explosive first quarter.

    To Pat Fitzgerald’s credit, the team did hit the ground running for the second consecutive week. Thorson connected with Nagel three times in the opening minutes before Larkin found a big hole for a 40-yard run. From there, Northwestern rode the offensive line until Larkin found the endzone for an early 7-0 lead. However, ineffective offense, poor play calling, and interceptions from both Thorson and Green meant that Northwestern was done scoring for the day.

    For the second year in a row, Duke QB Daniel Jones proceeded to shred the Northwestern defense for the duration of 21 unanswered points. After a pair of punts following the opening drive, Jones engineered a 6-minute that exposed the flaws in the Wildcats’ inexperienced secondary. Early into the second quarter, Jones found T.J. Rahming for the game-tying score.

    T.J. Green threw his interception on his first pass on the ensuing drive, marking the second consecutive week he has looked shaky out of the gate. Wildcat fans let out a sigh of relief when Thorson was back on the field just a couple minutes later, but he proceeded to get picked by Marquis Waters. To make things worse, superback Cameron Green was ejected for targeting on the tail end of the play. Because Green is a key piece in generating offensive flow, his absence was noticeable the rest of the way.

    On the first play after the second interception, Jones connected with Johnathan Lloyd for a 52-yard touchdown, squandering any trace of momentum that the 'Cats had from their opening drive. By the end of the half, Duke was up 21-7.

    The second half was not fun to watch. Duke was happy to revert to classic Big Ten football: heavy on punting, light on offensive creativity. Despite it being clear that Northwestern had nothing going offensively, Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall continued their pattern from last year of challenging the opposing defense on fourth down, and it didn’t work  the ‘Cats turned the ball over on downs three times in the second half alone.

    On the first drive of the half, Thorson and Larkin drove Northwestern to the red zone before the drive stalled, leaving the Wildcats with a 4th & Goal from the Duke 4. Forgoing an easy three points and momentum, the offense stayed on the field, the Blue Devils overwhelmed the offensive line, and Thorson was sacked. As the third quarter turned into the fourth, it became clear that the Wildcats had no answer for Duke’s athleticism, and eventually the game (mercifully) ended.

    This was ugly. Northwestern faces Akron (1-0) in Evanston next week before a bye week. Then the true gauntlet begins.


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