Football: Northwestern attempts comeback, but first-half struggles mark 30-23 loss to Duke


Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Northwestern defensive players celebrate after a play. Despite giving up just 138 yards in the second half, the Wildcats fell 30-23 to Duke.

Drew Schott , Gameday Editor


DURHAM, N.C. — Northwestern had been here before.

In Oct. 2018, the Wildcats trailed 31-24 to Nebraska with less than two minutes remaining and starting field position on their own one-yard line.

Just over two years later, NU fell behind by 17 points to Iowa in the first quarter.

And today against Duke, the Cats gave up 420 yards and 30 points in the first half. In retrospect, NU allowed just 15.89 points per game and 195 yards per game last season.

The Cats won those games in Evanston and Iowa City, and it looked like there was a shot to walk out of Durham with their second win of the season. Despite rotating through three quarterbacks and allowing 558 yards of total offense, NU notched a 25-yard field goal to make it a seven-point game with less than three minutes remaining.

But after allowing no points in the second half, forcing two turnovers and senior quarterback Andrew Marty scoring three touchdowns, it was a 16-yard pass from Blue Devils quarterback Gunnar Holmberg to wide receiver Eli Pancol that ended NU’s comeback bid.

“I’m incredibly disappointed right now,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I’m not gonna lie to you, I thought we would come down here and play a lot cleaner than we did. I’m gonna really challenge our guys. We can’t gift-wrap games for people. That’s not a recipe for anybody at any level to win.”

Giving up no points in the final 30 minutes brought the Cats (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) close to tying a game that Duke (2-1) led 27-0 in the second quarter. The 30-23 result did not just represent how close NU came to waging another successful comeback. It showcased the type of game that Fitzgerald wants his team to have, and not have as well.

There was a first quarter in which the Cats were outgained 250-95. There was a series of five possessions in which senior quarterback Hunter Johnson committed a turnover on four of them — he was taken out of the game at the end of the second quarter after throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble. There was a delay of game penalty on the game’s first snap.

But there was also the “spark,” according to Fitzgerald, of Marty coming in and throwing for 151 yards and two touchdowns, and running for 44 and a score, before leaving with an upper body injury. Graduate linebacker Chris Bergin recorded NU’s first interception of the year and sophomore cornerback Rod Heard II forced and recovered a fumble deep in the Blue Devils’ red zone.

The Cats gave up just 138 yards in the second half.

“They didn’t fold,” Fitzgerald said. “The way we played in the first half, probably would have quit, but that’s not the Wildcats. We got heart. We got character.”

NU’s lack of surrender was epitomized when Fitzgerald replaced Johnson with Marty at the 2:16 mark in the first half. Marty proceeded to lead NU down the field in six plays, culminating in a 31-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Jacob Gill. Then, he found sophomore tight end Marshall Lang wide-open for a 20-yard touchdown on the Cats’ first drive of the third quarter before scoring on a one-yard keeper just over a minute later.

Finishing the third quarter with 116 yards, NU took risks to gain an edge. Marty almost connected with senior tight end Charlie Mangieri on a two-point conversion to cut Duke’s lead to 15. Then, on fourth-and-eight from the Blue Devils’ 41-yard-line, the senior signal-caller sent a long pass down the field to sophomore wide receiver Bryce Kirtz, who could not reel in the catch.

The Cats’ defense also stepped up by not allowing Duke past their 30-yard line in the final 30 minutes. Yet the unit gave up 314 yards to Holmberg and 102 yards to running back Mataeo Durant — who linked up on an 11-yard pass to open the game’s scoring. Additionally, it allowed points on six of the Blue Devils’ first eight drives.

Fitzgerald noticed a difference of physicality between the first and second halfs and said that the team has to “figure this out.” He added that if not, different players may see the field.

“Fundementals and physical execution. That’s going to be the emphasis from Monday until January,” Bergin said. “We make our biggest strides as the season progresses by the way we practice, by the way we approach each and every day. We’re not blinking.”

As NU returns to Evanston ahead of its final non-conference matchup against Ohio, there is uncertainty at the quarterback position due Marty’s injury and the performance of Johnson and sophomore Ryan Hilinski — who completed only two passes for 34 yards in relief of Marty.

With the return of Big Ten play lasting the final eight games of the season, Fitzgerald knows there is no room for error. He said his team was “mad as heck” following the loss. As a result, the Cats’ 16th-year head coach has a plan to try and right the ship of an already sub-.500 season.

“I would like to stop doing what losing teams do,” Fitzgerald said. “This is not hard. We have very talented guys who we have got to coach better to get them to execute and play consistent.”

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Twitter: @dschott328

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