It may still be early in the season, but the Northwestern Wildcats keep passing the tests put in front of them. The ‘Cats were sluggish to start their first road game of the season, but a couple of big plays in the second half–along with yet another stellar defensive performance throughout the game– led Northwestern to a victory over Duke. Not only that, but Northwestern’s undefeated start has them now ranked 17th in the AP Top Poll, the highest NU has been ranked since 2013. Here are some numbers that define Northwestern’s impressive performance on the road in Durham:
Northwestern allowed only three third-down conversions on the day, as the Blue Devils went 3-for-17 on third down. That’s good for 17.6 percent. This comes two weeks after Northwestern also surrendered only three third-down conversions to Stanford, and a week after not allowing a single one against Eastern Illinois. So, not only has Northwestern’s defense been ferocious; it’s been clutch. The six third-down conversions given up in 43 attempts (13.95 percent) ranks best in the entire country. That also means that Northwestern doesn’t give up many points, as the 16 points allowed this season (5.3 per game) is also the best figure in the country.
At last week’s Monday press conference, Justin Jackson was joined by Warren Long and said that the running backs as a whole were feeling good and “close” to breaking a big run. That certainly happened on Saturday as Long seemingly ensured a Wildcat victory with a 55-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, putting Northwestern up 19-10. Some of the credit obviously goes to the offensive line; the group made great blocks in front of Long, who ran completely untouched to the end zone. On another day where Justin Jackson had his fair share of yards but on 35 carries, running back depth could be a huge key for any continued success for Northwestern. If Warren Long can continue to provide a spark as a third-down, short-yardage back to spell Jackson every once in a while, that depth should stabilize any major issues that the offense may have.
Not to be overlooked were some of Clayton Thorson’s (understandable) struggles on Saturday. The redshirt freshman did a great job of managing the game and avoiding turnovers in Northwestern’s wins over Stanford and Eastern Illinois. Against a fast and athletic defense on the road, however, Thorson struggled to get on track, throwing two interceptions and failing to throw downfield all afternoon long. Thorson will certainly need to improve on the road and make good reads if Northwestern wants to win the Big Ten West; both of Thorson’s interceptions seemed to be impossible attempts to hit receivers who were double and even triple-covered. But this kind of struggle seemed inevitable for a quarterback at such a young age facing a disciplined defense. His talent should ensure that this type of performance will eventually be the exception, not the norm.
While Thorson did turn the ball over twice, the Wildcat defense and special teams had his back. Northwestern’s defense still managed to win the turnover battle, forcing two fumbles, one on special teams, and picking off one Sirk pass. Dean Lowry tipped and intercepted Duke in the red zone, stopping Duke from possibly taking a 14-0 or 10-0 lead. And just when it looked like Northwestern would go into the half scoreless, Godwin Igwebuike didn’t give up on the play and forced a fumble, leading to a ‘Cats field goal. On the season the Wildcats have a +4 turnover margin and have forced at least two every game. Even with the way the Wildcat offense has struggled at times, an opportunistic defense can help out the offense tremendously.
Northwestern punted the ball 10 times on Saturday against Duke. The ‘Cats were unable to sustain drive, especially in the first half and continually forced to punt. On non-scoring drives, the Wildcats averaged just 9.5 yards per drive. As the Wildcats move into Big Ten conference play, sustaining drives will be even more important as the ‘Cats face tougher opponents like Michigan and Wisconsin, especially on the road. If the Wildcats can’t sustain a drive, no matter how well their defense plays, the ‘Cats will have a tough time pulling out a victory.
Anthony Walker is just something else. The Wildcats linebacker posted a career high 19 tackles against the Blue Devils, including 1.5 tackles for a loss, and was named the Walter Camp National FBS Defensive Player of the Week. Walker had 14 tackles…in the first half! Three games in, Walker is already putting together an outstanding season, and making the case to be Northwestern’s defensive MVP. The redshirt sophomore has 36 tackles (16 solo), 6.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, 2 pass breakups and one fumble recovery. Walker’s been the anchor of the Wildcats’ defense and a monster all over the field. On Saturday he made plays everywhere and helped the Wildcats defense keep NU in the game.