DURHAM, N.C. – It was a clash of Power 5 conferences in the Bull City as the Duke Blue Devils hosted the 23rd-ranked Northwestern Wildcats on Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday.
The end result worked to the Wildcats’ favor as they held off the Blue Devils to earn a hard-fought 19-10 win as 24,127 looked on.
“We played hard,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said.
“We just didn’t play. We didn’t make plays. We didn’t compete to the next level of making plays. Defensively, we played our rear ends off. They had 57 total yards of offense in the first half. You can’t play any better than that. Offensively, we created no explosions.”
Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk completed 24-of-39 pass attempts – throwing for a modest 150 yards – many swing passes with a handful of multiple-yardage launches.
Shaun Wilson (10 rushes, 45 yards), Shaquille Powell (9 rushes, 72 yards) and Sirk (16 rushes 62 yards) all kept busy in rushing the ball – mostly between the tackles.
It was a punishing way to try to gain yards against a Northwestern defense that was purposeful and effective in quickly containing each Duke offensive series.
“They were giving us a keep-read for me,” Sirk said.
“That was our blocking scheme for today. I took some hits today. I tried to protect my body today as much as possible and I tried not to take those big shots, but when necessary, when it’s 3rd and 7, you’re just tryin’ to get that first down and do whatever it takes.”
The Blue Devils converted only 3-of-17 third-down plays, and forced punter Will Monday to put up a total of 11 punts.
He struggled to get them inside the 20 while his kicks averaged 55 yards.
With six touchbacks, the Wildcats were afforded ample opportunities to start from the 20-yard line.
The only thing that stood in their way was the Duke defense which dominated play early on, and suffocated a Northwestern offense that averaged 28.5 points per game with previous wins over Stanford (16-6) and Eastern Illinois (41-0).
Safety Devon Edwards made his first interception of the season, the fifth of his career with 10:55 remaining in the opening quarter.
That pick was one of two that Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson threw to go along with being sacked once and completing only 9-of-23 pass attempts for 70 yards.
Running back Justin Jackson was the Wildcats’ workhorse on the ground, rushing for 120 net yards on 35 carries and keeping Duke’s secondary busy.
Edwards finished with 11 tackles along with fellow safety and captain Jeremy Cash.
Safety Deondre Singleton and linebacker Dwayne Norman led the Blue Devils with 12 tackles apiece, including a few for loss.
Following two scrimmage plays that advanced them into the red zone, the Blue Devils used an offside penalty to continue their march towards the goal line.
Sirk scrambled right and then saw an opening up the middle to score his second rushing touchdown of the season, and put Duke ahead 7-0.
Even with the lead, Duke’s offense struggled throughout the quarter against the fourth-best run defense in the country.
“You’re in a situation where they were intent on stopping the inside zone or the inside read run game,” Cutcliffe said.
“When you effectively do that, and then just try to keep everything in front of you, that’s what teams are going to do if they can get you to play in a box.”
Sirk struggled to connect on long pass attempts which were intended to stretch out the Wildcats defense.
The ones he did connect on ended up in the hands of Powell (7 catches, 39 yards), Wilson (6 catches, 39 yards), T.J. Rahming (4 catches, 10 yards), and Max McCaffrey (3 catches, 34 yards).
His difficulty in doing so forced many shorter attempts and eventually led to throwing his first career interception in the second quarter.
He found his range and connected on more pass attempts, but the Blue Devils were unable to add to their lead against such a well-disciplined defense.
It continued to be a defensive showcase for the remainder of the opening half until the Blue Devils conceded a field goal with 1:23 remaining.
A batted down pass attempt allowed NU’s Dean Lowry to pick the ball up and run it in from the six-yard line to score just eight seconds later.
The play was reviewed however, and overturned as it was ruled as an incomplete pass attempt.
Duke carried a 7-3 lead into halftime.
Northwestern’s special teams unit provided the offense immediately off the kickoff in the third quarter as Soloman Vault returned it 98 yards to put the Wildcats ahead 9-7.
The Wildcats maintained their momentum and eventually put together a 10-play, 53-yard drive and posted another field goal and extended their lead to five points, 12-7.
Duke continued to have trouble in moving the ball down the field.
All the defense could do was provide the offense more opportunities to score.
Cornerback Alonzo Saxton II intercepted a pass, the first of his career, with 3:43 to go in the third quarter.
Place kicker Ross Martin eventually pulled the Blue Devils closer with a 38-yard field goal, and cut the Wildcats lead to two points with 14:44 to play.
As the crowd in attendance awaited another offensive surge, the Blue Devils defense opened up enough for Warren Long to take the handoff and run uncontested for 55 yards to extend Northwestern’s lead to 19-10.
A special teams mishap, a fumble on a punt return with 5:44 remaining all but eliminated Duke’s chances of attempting any further comeback.
The defense felt the pressure to try to get the ball back, but couldn’t.
“We definitely felt a little more pressure to make some stops later in the game,” Norman said.
“We’re gonna learn from this game, watch film tomorrow, correct our mistakes, and move on to next weekend. When those situations are presented to us again, we’ll win those situations next week.”
Highlights: ACC Digital Network – TheACC.com