NU can’t overcome penalties in loss to Duke

Matt Baker

By Matt BakerThe Daily Northwestern

It looked like a win on paper.

Northwestern outgained Duke by almost 200 total yards, controlled the ball for seven more minutes and held the Blue Devils to only 63 rushing yards.

But after the Wildcats lost 125 yards on 13 penalties – including two key fouls in the final three minutes – NU saw its chances of a second 3-0 start in the last 45 years slip away with a 20-14 loss to the Blue Devils.

“We had so many self-inflicted wounds,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You can’t win a football game when you lose 125 yards in penalties. It doesn’t matter how much you move the ball. It squashes momentum. It ends up playing on such a negative towards you as far as your mindset.”

Despite the penalties and two NU turnovers, the Cats had two chances in the final quarter for the go-ahead touchdown.

Quarterback C.J. Bacher led a 79-yard drive to take NU (2-1) to the Duke 6-yard line with just fewer than three minutes remaining. But on 4th-and-5, a false start penalty pushed the Cats back five yards. Bacher’s pass to Kim Thompson in the endzone fell incomplete.

After a punt from Duke (1-2), NU’s offense took over again with 1:17 left. But unlike last week’s game-winning final drive against Nevada, the Cats couldn’t capitalize.

Bacher led the Cats 58 yards in eight plays, but an intentional grounding penalty tacked on five yards to a sack with less than a minute left. He made up for the mistake with a 35-yard scramble that set up first-and-goal from the 7.

But Bacher fired four straight incomplete passes to end the game and snap Duke’s 22-game losing streak – the longest active streak in the nation.

“There were a lot of penalties, and it’s just adversity that we need to respond to,” said Bacher, who finished 30-of-51 passing for a career-high 368 yards. “I thought we did a pretty good job, but when you’re only able to put up 14 points, you didn’t do a good enough of a job.”

The game began with an uncharacteristic mistake from the Cats. Bacher’s pass on the second play from scrimmage fell short of his receiver and was picked off by Duke’s Michael Tauiliili. It was Bacher’s first interception of the year.

The Blue Devils scored first later in the quarter with an 11-play, 86-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to Jomar Wright.

Lewis, who completed 48 percent of passes for a total of 285 yards through the first two games, picked apart NU’s secondary in the first half. He completed 14 of 15 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns.

“We were stopping them,” linebacker Adam Kadela said. “We knew what they were going to do. They didn’t do anything that we didn’t see….It’s just big plays. They made plays, and you have to give them all the credit.”

The Cats responded with an 83-yard touchdown drive capped off by a 5-yard run by Brandon Roberson for his second score of the year. Roberson started in place of Tyrell Sutton, who was sidelined with an ankle injury.

After two touchdown passes from Lewis – including a 56-yard post pattern by Ronnie Drummer – and a missed extra point made the score 20-7, NU had a chance to cut the lead.

With less than two minutes left in the first half, Amado Villarreal made a 34-yard field goal that would have trimmed the lead to 10. But Duke jumped offsides on the play, and NU accepted the penalty to try a fourth-and-two conversion.

Bacher’s pass to Omar Conteh was broken up by the Blue Devils to end the threat.

“At that point I felt like we needed to get the ball in the endzone,” Fitzgerald said. “All we needed to do was get the first down. I believed our offense was going to score, and obviously that didn’t work out that way.”

The Cats had more scoring opportunities, advancing the ball past Duke’s 30-yard line in five of their last six drives. One series ended in a 1-yard touchdown run by Bacher, but the other four ended in turnovers on downs.

“We had all the opportunities in the world – we just didn’t finish the drives,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to look back again at this film and we’re going to see that we didn’t finish drives and didn’t finish the first quarter. We didn’t get off the field and finish when we had opportunities as a defense.”

The Cats open the Big Ten season next week at No. 8 Ohio State (3-0) in their first road game of the year.

Reach Matt Baker at [email protected]