Despite improved second half, Northwestern falls to Duke and suffers second loss of 2021


Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Bryce Kirtz reels in a catch. The sophomore wide receiver finished with three receptions for 72 yards in Northwestern’s 30-23 loss to Duke.

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer


DURHAM, N.C. — In the first 30 minutes of its non-conference contest at Wallace Wade Stadium, Northwestern failed to generate any offense or make a defensive stop against a Duke team that lost to Charlotte two weeks ago.

Yet in the second half, the Wildcats mounted an ill-fated comeback, allowing no points and scoring sixteen. But their bid fell short, giving NU (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) a 30-23 loss to Duke (2-1), its third straight to the Blue Devils.

Duke now leads its series with the Cats 11-10.

“We gave the game away in the first half,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I’m really proud of the way our guys responded at halftime. They were really positive, upbeat.They played their tails off in the second half, but it was too many opportunities squandered.”

The Cats struggled in the game’s opening minutes. NU was flagged for delay of game on the very first play of the game and senior quarterback Hunter Johnson and his receivers failed to connect on routes until the former five-star recruit found sophomore Bryce Kirtz for a 44-yard gain. He would fumble the ball in the red zone a few plays later.

He proceeded to throw interceptions on three of the next four drives, leading to Fitzgerald benching him for Andrew Marty.

In the waning minutes of the first half, Marty found freshman receiver Jacob Gill wide open in the end zone for NU’s first points of the day. Marty added another touchdown through the air, and scrambled for 44 yards and a rushing touchdown. He was the Cats’ second leading rusher.

However, he fumbled twice. One was recovered by NU, but the second fumble came on a 25-yard rush, a play that ended his night after he suffered an upper body injury after being tackled.

“We need to stop doing what losing teams do,” Fitzgerald said. “Losing teams turn the ball over. Losing teams have self-inflicted wounds. Losing teams give up explosive plays. Losing teams have communication issues.”

The offensive line, the most experienced unit on this young NU squad, was missing Josh Priebe and senior center Sam Gerak suffered an injury in the fourth quarter. Those injuries put less experienced players into the game, specifically in the interior, and the offense suffered as a result. Most evidently, the Cats struggled to establish the run game, as sophomore running back Evan Hull was NU’s leading rusher with just 49 yards. [cq]

“The offense just didn’t get a fast start,” Hull said. “We got down early and it was tough to fight back. In the second half, we finally got some momentum in the game.”

Three of the Cats’ quarterbacks — Johnson, Marty, and sophomore Ryan Hilinski — played in Saturday’s matchup. Hull said playing with different quarterbacks didn’t impact his performance.

Fitzgerald said after the game that preparing three quarterbacks for competition is a challenge. Hilinski, who transferred from South Carolina this offseason, hasn’t received as many reps as the other two signal callers, according to Fitzgerald.

The defense didn’t fare much better than the offense in the first half. NU allowed 10 plays of 10 yards or more, and the Blue Devils gained 238 yards on those sequences alone. [cq] Duke running back Mataeo Durant ran for 102 yards and a touchdown and quarterback Gunnar Holmberg threw for 314 yards and a touchdown while adding 46 yards on the ground. The Cats gave up 558 total yards, 420 of which came in the first half. [cq]

Even though NU’s defense showed signs of improvement in the second half, linebacker Chris Bergin — who caught an interception in the third quarter — said he didn’t feel like they made many systematic adjustments.

“We just didn’t physically execute (in the first half),” Bergin said. “That’s on me as a leader.”

Bergin’s pick was part of the comeback push from the NU defense, which started with an early third quarter fumble recovery from sophomore cornerback Rod Heard II. Marty then scored on a one-yard rush for his third touchdown of the game.

While Fitzgerald said he was proud of the team’s second half effort, he emphasized the Cats can’t win games if they continue to fall into early deficits and keep their defense on the field.

“I’m going to dust off my halftime speeches, and I’m going to start saying them before the game,” Fitzgerald said. “They seem to be working a hell of a lot better than what I’m saying at the start of the game.”

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Twitter: @gablcarroll

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