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Football: Northwestern improves to 3-0 with road victory over Duke

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Junior running back Warren Long sprinted 55 yards for Northwestern's lone offensive touchdown of the game Saturday. The Wildcats rushed for 201 yards in their win over Duke.

Junior running back Warren Long sprinted 55 yards for Northwestern's lone offensive touchdown of the game Saturday. The Wildcats rushed for 201 yards in their win over Duke.

Zack Laurence/The DailyNorthwestern

Zack Laurence/The DailyNorthwestern

Junior running back Warren Long sprinted 55 yards for Northwestern's lone offensive touchdown of the game Saturday. The Wildcats rushed for 201 yards in their win over Duke.

Stephanie Kelly, Managing Editor

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After an ugly, punt-heavy first half from both teams, the Wildcats showed enough life in the second half to gain and expand a lead, finishing off Duke 19-10 in Durham, North Carolina on Saturday.

In the team’s first road test, Northwestern defeated the Blue Devils in a defensive game dominated by sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker, senior defensive Dean Lowry and sophomore cornerback Keith Watkins II. The important victory proves the team’s season-opening win against Stanford was no fluke and that the Cats can stand up to formidable opponents.

“We knew this was going to be a dogfight,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “We’re not afraid to take on that type of competition.”

Walker had a career-high 19 tackles by the end of the game, facilitating many third down stops and forcing numerous punts from Duke.

The first half was kept interesting by plays from Lowry and sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike. Lowry claimed an interception in the second quarter, returning it 18 yards, while Igwebuike forced and recovered a Duke fumble.

These particular defensive plays highlighted the major theme of the game: NU’s defense bailed out the offense numerous times, in particular quarterback Clayton Thorson, whose growing-pains mistakes have to be noted.

After an easy victory last week against Eastern Illinois, the redshirt freshman faced a confident and strong Blue Devils defense. His game, however, was marked with interceptions and underthrown passes. A particularly noteworthy play in the third quarter had Thorson throwing into triple coverage, basically handing Duke an interception opportunity, which the Blue Devils readily seized.

Strictly looking at the numbers, Thorson was outplayed in the first half, and NU showed a lack of progression. Thorson’s 38 yards were paltry compared to Duke’s junior quarterback Thomas Sirk with 86 yards.

Thorson didn’t dramatically improve his stat line (9-for-23 with 70 yards and two interceptions) but did enough to preserve NU’s lead.

“(Thorson) is 1-0 three times, and frankly that’s all that matters,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s going to learn from all these experiences.”

Junior running back Warren Long had the most exciting offensive play, breaking through to run 55 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Strong blocking from the offensive line and a solid block from senior superback Dan Vitale offered chemistry that the offense had been lacking all day.

NU’s special teams also showed just how much they’ve progressed in the last couple of years. Sophomore Solomon Vault ran 98 yards to return a kick for a touchdown to start off the third quarter, prompting a much-needed change in tone for the game.

Even after such a shaky performance, the Cats go into their match-up against Ball State next week at 3-0. This win, along with the earlier Stanford win, makes upcoming swing games like Minnesota in two weeks that much more interesting for a program coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons.

“We’ve flushed what happened over the last two years,” Fitzgerald said. “This is an entirely different team.”

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Twitter: @StephanieKellyM

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