The Wildcats finally got in the win column Saturday, as they topped the Duke Blue Devils, 24-13 at Ryan Field to finish off non-conference play with a 1-2 record. Northwestern opens conference play under the lights at Ryan Field on Sept. 24, but first let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the ‘Cats first win of the season.
Under duress all night, Clayton Thorson put together a nice night against Duke, completing 18 of 39 passes for a career high 320 yards and three touchdowns. With little help from the rushing attack after halftime, and under pressure from Duke’s front seven all night, Thorson was able to distribute the ball to 7 different receivers and covert 42.1 percent of the Wildcats’ third down attempts. And while Thorson did turn the ball over twice, on one of which the intended receiver tripped, the Northwestern quarterback overall had a fairly decent night when the ‘Cats really needed a win.
Coming into Saturday’s game, Northwestern had just 4 plays on the season of 20 or more yards. But against the Blue Devils, the ‘Cats more than doubled that number, with 8 plays for 20+ yards. Northwestern has had lots of trouble finding the big play over the past few years, but Thorson and co. were able to gain chunks on yards on big plays, three of which went for scores. On the season, Northwestern’s offense still ranks No. 82 in the FBS with 12 plays for more than 20 yards, but it was a good sign to see the Wildcats being able to find the big play when they needed it with three of the eight plays coming on third down.
Without Matthew Harris and Kyle Queiro, Northwestern secondary still managed to perform amicably against Duke, combining to break up seven passes. While the ‘Cats did allow Daniel Jones to pass for almost 300 yards, Northwestern’s defense forced two turnovers and bent but didn’t break, allowing just seven points before Duke scored again in garbage time. Trae Williams, Montrae Hartage, Godwin Igwebuike and Jared McGee did give up a lot underneath, Duke’s average completion was 10.3 yards, but they didn’t allow the big play and held the Blue Devils to 5 of 17 (29.4%) on third down conversions.
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Jack Mitchell hadn’t hit a field goal prior to Saturday night’s game against Duke and heading into halftime, Mitchell missed another to move to 0-2 on the year. Mitchell even got a second chance on his first kick, as Duke was called for a roughing the kicker penalty allowing Mitchell to attempt a 34 yard field goal instead of a 49 yard field goal, but he missed it yet again. In the second half, Mitchell hit his one attempt, a 40 yard field goal, but its a troubling sign to see Mitchell missing field goals after a season where he only made two-thirds (18 of 27) of his attempts. With the ‘Cats offense struggling, Mitchell may have his number called more often this season, but it will certainly be less than ideal if he cannot hit at a high clip.
Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson combined for 38 yards on 6 carries, a 6.33 yard average, on the ‘Cats opening series, but thereafter Northwestern managed just 48 yards of rushing the rest of the game. Against Duke, the Wildcats averaged 2.0 yards per carry, a pitiful number, while Jackson averaged just 3.4. Northwestern’s offense line had trouble all night, not only protecting Thorson but also opening up holes for Jackson to run. Duke had 11.0 tackles for a loss as they were able to consistently penetrate Northwestern’s offensive line and drop Jackson, Thorson, Solomon Vault and Jelani Roberts for a loss of yards, and forcing the ‘Cats to find much of their offense through the air.
Clayton Thorson was sacked or hit 17 times – 5 sacks and 12 quarterback hits – as Northwestern’s offense line had trouble all night. On the season, Thorson has been sacked or hit 34 times and Northwestern’s 11.0 sacks allowed ranks 117th in the FBS. The ‘Cats offensive line play was ugly against Western Michigan, it was ugly against Illinois State, and yet again it was ugly against Duke, and its something Northwestern NEEDS to fix heading into Big Ten play, otherwise the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State are going to feast on the Wildcats offensive line.