Football: Numerous squandered opportunities plague Northwestern’s offense against Duke


David Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

Jeremy Larkin pulls away from a Duke defender. Larkin and the Wildcats’ offense struggled to convert scoring opportunities Saturday.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


Northwestern’s first drive in its 21-7 loss to Duke on Saturday was basically perfect.

The 13 drives that followed were anything but.

Nine of those 13 drives ended in Blue Devils territory, yet the Wildcats produced exactly zero points from them. Perhaps even more incredibly, that lack of production was not from missed field goals nor untimely turnovers, but rather poor execution on critical downs, leading to a sour combination of fourth-down failures and punts.

“It’s that little nanosecond longer to get open, and when we’re throwing the ball and the timing and rhythm is off … (it’s) just really ugly,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s like bad backyard football playing with your buddies, and you have no timing and rhythm — that’s what it looked like at times.”

NU stalled after crossing midfield with about as much predictability as the patches of empty seats at an 11 a.m. kickoff.

When on or beyond the 50-yard line after the first touchdown drive, the Cats went 3-for-15 on third and fourth downs. On those downs, quarterbacks Clayton Thorson and T.J. Green combined to go 2-for-10 passing for nine total yards. The results of first- and second-down plays in Duke territory weren’t much better, as they consistently put NU in low-probability conversion scenarios: the team averaged 7.9 yards to go on those aforementioned third and fourth downs.

“We’ve got to finish drives. … That’s the big picture, the big answer,” senior receiver Flynn Nagel said. “We had countless drives where we were driving down and didn’t finish, didn’t put points on the board.”

The rotation between Thorson and Green prevented NU from getting into a rhythm — not that either quarterback was particularly good when they were on the field. Thorson averaged 5.2 yards per attempt; Green averaged 4.7 yards.

Fitzgerald offered the most clarity yet known about the rotation after the game, saying that which quarterback plays each drive is determined exclusively by what the medical staff tells him.

Still, Thorson did lead a promising drive to begin the second half. Deep in their own territory and trailing by 14, the offense marched down the field to create first-and-goal at the 5-yard line. Three plays later, they faced fourth-and-goal at the 4, and Fitzgerald elected to go for it — ultimately unsuccessfully — rather than take the chip-shot field goal.

“We were somewhat inept offensively, so we’re four yards away, so let’s go score a touchdown,” he said, explaining the rationale. “We’re down two scores, so if we kick a field goal, we’re still down two scores, so let’s go be aggressive. Sometimes it works, and you obviously feel excited about that, other times it doesn’t.”

The defense came up with stops throughout the rest of the third quarter to keep the Blue Devils’ pinned deep, but the offense was unable to take advantage of beginning the next three drives around midfield and make any dent in the deficit.

“We’ve just to finish drives, that’s what it came down to,” Thorson said. “Obviously, we had the ball a few times on their 50, didn’t take advantage of good field position.”

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