Football: Northwestern’s early defensive lapses doom Cats in upset loss to Duke


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Graduate linebacker Declan Carr (36) and sophomore defensive lineman Carmine Bastone (60) run to the field with teammates. The Wildcats surrendered touchdowns on Duke’s first three drives in a 31-23 defeat.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the 16-minute sequence that opened Northwestern’s home debut in Ryan Field a “perfect storm,” and the description seems apt: three Duke drives, three Duke touchdowns. 

But for all of the shock value that a perfect storm would imply, the 21-0 hole that the Wildcats faced felt more like a rerun of the teams’ 2021 matchup than an aberration. Last September, Duke raced out to an identical 21-0 lead in the opening quarter, then foiled a NU rally in the final minutes for a 30-23 win. 

In Saturday’s game — a 31-23 final score, this time around — the Cats (1-1, 1-0 Big Ten) battled back into contention behind a career-high day from junior running back Evan Hull, but Fitzgerald again emphasized just how crushing the big plays that his defense surrendered early were to his team’s hopes.

“We talked about starting fast, and obviously we failed at that,” Fitzgerald said. “Going all the way down to the end, there was great belief we could win.”

NU’s defense wasn’t the headliner in the Cats’ season-opening win at Ireland, but the unit was a calling card in NU’s efforts to close out the Cornhuskers late. 

Any momentum the defense built overseas was tested heading into Week Two against Duke (1-1, 0-0 ACC). The Cats sent out a secondary without two of its experienced starters, senior defensive back A.J. Hampton Jr. and junior defensive back Coco Azema, forcing junior defensive backs Garnett Hollis, Jr. and Jaheem Joseph into action. 

For Hollis, the time he spent in practice behind Hampton and Azema gave him confidence in his ability to take on a starting role.

“I’ve learned a lot from A.J. and Cam and the older guys, because I’ve been watching them since I was a freshman,” Hollis said. “When he went down, I thought it was my time to show what I could do having been a younger guy under them.”

Like most of the Cats’ defenders on Saturday, Hollis’ performance was uneven. His tip drill interception along the end zone’s back boundary spoiled a prime scoring opportunity for Duke, but he was among the young defensive backs that Duke quarterback Riley Leonard targeted on the Blue Devils’ first drive. 

After that six-play, 77-yard drive to open up the scoring, the Blue Devils continued last year’s trend of explosive plays. Duke running back Jordan Waters broke a pair NU tackles for a 42-yard touchdown to put the Blue Devils up two scores, before receiver Eli Pancol finished off the unit’s prolific first quarter with an 81-yard catch-and-run and set up a third touchdown.

Two weeks after rallying from two 11-point deficits against Nebraska, the Cats’ offense found itself playing catch-up again. Propelled by junior running back Evan Hull’s career day — 213 receiving yards and two total touchdowns — NU’s passing game boosted the team back into contention. 

Crucially, the Cats’ defense also found a rhythm. After surrendering three touchdown drives to start the game, NU held the visitors to two punts, an interception and a missed field goal across their next four full drives. When the Cats’ offense cut the deficit to 28-23 on a passing touchdown, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s group forced its third three-and-out of the game.

“I thought the defense really responded after the first 15 plays,” Fitzgerald said. “Jim O’Neil and the defensive staff settled everybody down. We made some subtle tweaks but nothing major and we just executed and played a little cleaner.” 

After junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski’s interception with 3:31 put the Blue Devils on the brink of victory, the NU defense stiffened up once more. 

Duke advanced the ball to the Cats’ 5-yard line but couldn’t cross the goal line in three rushing attempts. Instead of a game-sealing touchdown, the Blue Devils settled for a field goal and an 8-point lead. 

“We felt like we could get them off the field and if we needed to, force a field goal,” Hollis said. “Once we have the energy that we’re going to get a stop, it’s hard for us to get off the field with them scoring a touchdown.”

NU’s offense couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity. The Cats’ final drive ended in calamity, as Hull fumbled the ball over the goal line with 12 seconds and Leonard kneeled in victory formation to give NU its first loss of 2022. 

Fitzgerald praised his defense’s resolve and the poise of the young defensive backs that were pressed into duty, and the Cats ended the game having surrendered just 240 passing yards and 10 second half points. Those silver linings weren’t much consolation postgame, and NU looked more to the start, rather than the nail-biting finish, in assessing what went wrong.

“We saw a couple nuances, nothing major that we didn’t prepare for,” Fitzgerald said. “It just looked like we mis-hit a few things and missed a few tackles. You can’t spot anybody, let alone a Power Five team, 21 points.”

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