By John Beers
Throughout the lead-up to Saturday’s matchup against Duke, Pat Fitzgerald referred to this game as a test, and in a manner fitting for the elite academic institution Northwestern is, the Wildcats passed that test.
In what has become the Wildcats’ calling card this season, defense again led the way in the victory over the Blue Devils. Duke scored early in the first quarter on a five-yard run by quarterback Thomas Sirk after Clayton Thorson handed Duke a short field, throwing his first interception of the season.
But from there on out the defense was nothing but shutdown, putting up another truly dominant performance. The Wildcats best players locked in and made play after play. Linebacker Anthony Walker was far-and-away the best player on the field Saturday, as the sophomore delivered a career high 19 tackles, including one and a half tackles for loss.
For defensive end Dean Lowry, the likelihood of an NFL career will keep improving if he continues to have games like he had against Duke. While Lowry was a consistent force in the trenches—tallying 6 total tackles and a half tackle for loss—it was in the passing game where he really made his presence felt. With Duke driving and in the red zone late in the second quarter, Lowry jumped up to intercept a Sirk pass at the 18-yard line, ending the Blue Devils scoring threat. Lowry also seemed to give the Wildcats the lead right before halftime, batting down what looked to be a backwards pass and running the ball into the end zone. The play was overruled, but the effort by Lowry was undeniable.
Sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike also continued to shine in his first season as a starter for the Wildcats. Igwebuike’s presence was continually felt during the game as he was often seen making tackles at or near the line of scrimmage—finishing the day with 8 total tackles.
Perhaps his biggest play though was a forced fumble that came on the possession after Lowry’s pick. With Duke running back Shaun Wilson breaking toward the sideline, Igwebuike stepped up and stripped the ball and then scrambled on the ground to recover the fumble, giving the Wildcats a chance to score before the half.
While the defense was outstanding, the offense was anything but, and quarterback Clayton Thorson seemed to regress in his first road start. Despite outscoring the Blue Devils 19-3 during the last 54 minutes of the game, the offense was actually outgained by the Blue Devils, 327 yards to 271.
Most of those struggles came as a result of the poor play of the redshirt freshman Thorson. After completing 58 percent of his passes through his first two starts, Thorson failed to top 40 percent against the Blue Devils, and only threw for 70 yards while posting his first two collegiate interceptions.
While Thorson’s decision-making was seen as a positive throughout his first two starts, it was certainly a negative against the Blue Devils. His second interception was on a ball thrown into triple coverage and throughout the day, many of his 23 passes were far from finding a Wildcat receiver. Thorson also missed a sure touchdown late in the fourth quarter, under throwing receiver Miles Shuler who had bursted past the entire Duke secondary.
Any bright spots on offense again came from the Northwestern’s trio of running backs: Justin Jackson, Warren Long and Solomon Vault. Jackson was his usual workhorse self, rushing for 120 yards on a career-high 35 rushing attempts.
A week after setting a career high with 72 rushing yards against Eastern Illinois, Long provided the only real offensive highlight of the day. Facing 3rd-and-1 on their own 45-yard line in the fourth quarter, Long broke off a 55-yard rushing touchdown, giving the Wildcats the 19-10 lead that proved to be the final score line. Long also sealed the win for the Wildcats by recovering a muffed punt with less than 6 minutes left in the game.
Vault only saw two carries on the day, but his contribution on special teams provided the spark that the sluggish Wildcats offense lacked all day. Vault returned the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for a touchdown, giving Northwestern a lead they would never relinquish.
As the Wildcats head into their final game before conference play, they have one known quantity in their incredibly stout defense, but a lot of question marks surrounding the quarterback position. Next week against Ball State, Thorson needs to prove he can make enough plays to win the Wildcats games in the Big Ten. If he can, this is a Wildcats team that should go far in-conference.