No. 23 Northwestern (3-0) had its offense shut down by Duke (2-1), so it was up to the special teams to turn things around after halftime, and boy did it. Solomon Vault returned the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for a touchdown, giving the plucky Big Ten academic overachievers a 9-7 lead, of which the Wildcats never relinquished in a 19-10 road victory in ACC country.
Northwestern running back Warren Long had the other big play of the game for the Wildcats in the win. Long essentially sealed the game with a 55-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, giving Northwestern a 19-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. the defense did the rest from there. Duke’s offense was forced to punt on their next two possessions. Duke also fumbled away a punt in the fourth quarter.
Northwestern needed the special teams in a big way to get this win. Quarterback Clayton Thorson was intercepted twice and completed just nine of his 23 pass attempts. Running back Justin Jackson ended up carrying the offense with 120 rushing yards, but it was the big run from Long that was the highlight of the day on offense.
But the biggest surprise that has continued for Northwestern is the steady play of the defense. Of course, this should not be a huge shock considering the numbers returning this season for the Wildcats. Northwestern’s defense entered the year overlooked in the Big Ten, but with wins against Stanford and now Duke under their belts, these Wildcats should not be shocking anyone else moving in to Big Ten play.
Before that happens, Northwestern wraps up its non-conference portion of the schedule next week at home against Ball State. A win would move Northwestern to 4-0 heading into Big Ten play against Minnesota. Don’t look now, but Northwestern could realistically be 6-0 when they head to the Big house in Ann Arbor in October (but Minnesota will be no easy game for the Wildcats).
As for Duke, the Blue Devils came up short on behalf of the ACC. It gets no easier next week for the Blue Devils as Duke will play host to Georgia Tech in what should be one of many key battles within the ACC Coastal Division. Duke and Georgia Tech have been the division’s representatives in the last few ACC title games, and each could make a run again this season in what could be a wide-open division (or Georgia Tech could run away with it).