NU escapes Duke with a win: NU 24, Duke 20

Matt Forman

From the bumpy landing at Raleigh-Durham International Airport to a roller coaster of a game, Northwestern’s trip to Duke Saturday was tumultuous.

With Hurricane Hanna poised to strike the Eastern seaboard, the Wildcats were poised to avenge last season’s heartbreaking 20-14 loss to the Blue Devils.

But the storm passed through with anything but a vengeance, and the Cats were anything but overpowering.

Conditions and expectations aside, NU left with what it needed most, a 24-20 victory over Duke for its second win of the season.

“There were definitely a lot of ups and downs,” quarterback C.J. Bachér said. “We need to focus on being consistent. Good teams respond when they are up and when they are down.”

In a reverse of the game played in Evanston last season, the Blue Devils won the game on paper but lost it on the field. Duke (1-1) doubled NU’s first down total, 28-14, and time of possession, 39:15-20:45. The Blue Devils out-gained the Cats by nearly 150 yards.

While the Cats lost the offensive and defensive battles in terms of yardage, they played smart football and did not beat themselves.

“We had a couple of objectives coming into the game,” Fitzgerald said. “Number one, we had to make sure that we took care of the football and won the turnover battle. Number two, we had to win the special teams battle.”

Much like the 2007 meeting, when NU had two fourth-quarter drives stall in Duke territory, the Blue Devils failed to score the go-ahead touchdown twice in the game’s final nine minutes.

With Duke trailing 24-20, quarterback Thaddeus Lewis led a 13-play, 61-yard drive all the way to the NU 13. After short gains on first through third downs, the Blue Devils faced a fourth-and-five. Lewis dropped back, rolled right, and fired toward wide receiver Johnny Williams. Cats cornerback Jordan Mabin read the curl route all the way, broke on the ball and deflected the pass to regain possession for NU.

“I was excited,” Mabin said. “I knew coming in as a redshirt freshman that they were going to test me a little bit. I saw it in the air and I knew I was going to make a play.”

Regaining the momentum, the Cats offense went three-and-out and had to punt. Stefan Demos punted rugby-style all the way down to the Duke 21, but the play was called back on an illegal formation penalty. On his second attempt, Demos’ punt only went 39 yards and was returned to the NU 29.

After a short gain and two incomplete passes, Duke faced another fourth-and-five situation. Lewis scrambled to the right off play-action and found a streaking Clifford Harris for a 23-yard touchdown with 1:20 to go. But the play was negated when a Duke lineman was called for a holding penalty.

“I was worried about the touchdown,” Fitzgerald said. “But I did see the hold. We made a nice pass rush on that play.”

Lewis was pressured by defensive ends Corbin Bryant and Corey Wootton on fourth-and-15 and fired a pass off his back foot that landed incomplete.

All Bachér had to do was kneel twice to run out the clock.

While open receivers were hard to come by for Bachér, who finished 14-of-31 for 226 yards, the senior quarterback led a gutsy drive at the start of the fourth quarter. After he fired long for and incomplete on and second down, NU faced a third-and-10 at its own 41. Duke rushed eight defenders, leaving only three down field, and Bachér hung in the pocket just long enough to hit receiver Eric Peterman for a 45-yard gain.

“They left Eric (Peterman), who I feel really comfortable with, one-on-one,” Bachér said. “He ran by (the defender), and I just had to see if he was going outside or inside. He went outside and I kind of just threw it up for him and he made the play.”

Bachér completed an 11-yard pass to Rasheed Ward on third down, setting up a first-and-goal from the Duke three-yard-line. After a Duke pass interference penalty put the ball on the two, Omar Conteh rushed untouched into the end zone, for what turned out to be the game-winning score.

Despite averaging only 2.9 yards per carry, all three of NU’s touchdowns came on the ground. Sutton’s pair of first half scores were his first two on the ground this season, after a receiving touchdown in week one against Syracuse. It was the first game Bachér did not pass for a touchdown since late last September against Michigan.

The ultimate difference? NU’s defense bent but didn’t break. Duke piled on offensive yardage, with 294 through the air and 178 on the ground on 91 plays.

But when it mattered most, the Cats buckled down. And because of that effort, NU has a chance to start a season 3-0 for only the second time in the last 45 years, against Southern Illinois of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) Saturday.

“We were on the field a lot,” Mabin said. “The offense went three-and-out a couple times and it was just a challenge for us. We just crunched down and got the big plays when we needed them. That’s the sign of a good team.”