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Duke Football Holds Off Northwestern Down The Stretch To Move To 2-1

It’s nice to see Duke get some mojo back.

NCAA Football: North Carolina A&T at Duke
Sep 10, 2021; Durham, North Carolina, USA; Duke Blue Devils quarterback Gunnar Holmberg (12) runs against the North Carolina A&T Aggies during the third quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium. 
William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve often said that the difference between a good team and a bad team is that a good team finds ways to win games and a bad team finds way to lose games.

So, I guess Duke football is a good team. But they sure found a strange route to Saturday’s 30-23 win over Northwestern. For the first 28 minutes or so Duke put on a clinic, moving the ball at will, forcing turnovers, dominating special teams. Then they spent the final 32 minutes holding on to the gains they made in the first 28.

But hold on they did. And the end result is a Duke win over a respected Power-Five program, one that gives Duke a 2-1 record and moves them over .500 for the first time in 23 months.

Duke simply stunned Northwestern out of the box. Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg said that offensive coordinator Jeff Faris told him this morning that Duke was going to take a deep shot on their first play. Holmberg hit Darrell Harding for 50 yards to the Northwestern 10. Three plays later Holmberg hit Mataeo Durant with a swing pass and it was 7-0. A three-and-out for the visitors and Duke was back on the scoreboard, Durant finishing a five-play drive with a 21-yard run.

It was 14-0 less than four minutes into the game.

Duke went hurry-up and it seemed to take something out of the visitors from the Chicago suburbs on a hot, humid afternoon.

Duke receiver Jake Bobo said the plan was “to jump on them. We knew we had to get on them early.”

The heat? “I don’t know if I would call that the plan. Those are world-class athletes over there on the other side. But coming from Chicago, we’re an up-tempo team, so that’s what we’re going to do. It helped that it was 85, hot, especially with those guys coming down from Chicago, maybe not used to it. We thought that might be an edge coming in. It looked like it might have worked in our favor.”

“We’re pretty familiar with this opponent,” Holmberg said of the fast start. “I think that was something that was a good advantage for us. We liked our athlete match-ups on the outside. Just clicking on all cylinder and having fun.”

Meanwhile Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson was having a nightmare. The former Clemson play-caller had four turnovers before halftime, three interceptions and a costly sack and lost fumble on a play that started on the Duke 2.

David Cutcliffe said he thought Duke “confused” Johnson some and that’s pretty charitable.

But remember, this was a Duke defense without a turnover through its first two games.

“We talked and talked defensively about stripping the ball,” Cutcliffe said. “The work we’ve done has paid off.”

Duke added a touchdown and two Charlie Ham field goals and it was 27-0.

But maybe the field goals showed some signs of slippage. Duke advanced to the Northwestern 5 and 9 but couldn’t punch it in. And Durant lost a fumble in the shadow of the Northwestern goal line.

Which isn’t a problem for a team pitching a shutout.

Until Duke wasn’t pitching a shutout. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald went with backup quarterback Andrew Marty with just over two minutes left—do you blame him.

It took Marty six plays and 51 seconds to move the visitors down the field and into the end zone.

Game on.

What made Marty so much more effective than Johnson?

“I will say that Marty executed better,” defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. “He seemed like he’s more of a hard-nosed kid. He wasn’t afraid to run through the middle, so we needed to adjust our game.”

Cutcliffe said that Marty is more athletic than Johnson but added that Duke did a better of pressuring Johnson.

Holmberg has begun to show a knack for the two-minute drill and drove Duke down the field, where Ham nailed a 50-yard field goal to end the first-half scoring at 30-7.

Unfortunately, this was the last time Duke would score.

Northwestern’s defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has NFL coaching experience on his resume. Duke had 418 yards total offense in the first half. Durant rushed for over 100 yards rushing and Holmberg to Bobo was pretty much unstoppable. But O’Neil made some adjustments and Duke’s offense went splat.

Holmberg’s thoughts?

“Hats off to them. We knew they weren’t going to just give up. They’re a very prideful team that’s coached well. They made adjustments but some of it was us shooting ourselves in the foot. There are things we could have done better.”

It certainly wasn’t all schemes. Cutcliffe said he was disappointed in how Duke came out of the locker room after halftime. Duke had two penalties on its first possession of the second half. Holmberg hit Harding with another bomb on the second possession but Northwestern’s A.J. Hampton knocked it loose. Durant lost a fumble inside the Duke 10, Holmberg threw an interception, the penalties started coming one after another, ineligible man down-field, late hit, holding, pass interference and it was 30-20 and an epic collapse loomed large.

As did the loss to Charlotte two weeks ago. You recall that Duke’s defense had several opportunities to salt away that game in the fourth quarter but couldn’t get the stops it needed.

This time it got the stops. A fourth-down incompletion at the Duke 41, a punt, a fumble and a punt, all leaving the score 30-20.

About that fumble. Marty was at the end of a 25-yard run that would have given the Wildcats the ball near the Duke 25. But DeWayne Carter, all 310 pounds of him, never gave up on the play, chased down Marty and forced a fumble. Ben Frye recovered, his second recovery of the game.

“Attitude and effort,” Carter said of the play. “Every single game. You control what you control and that’s attitude and effort. That’s something I pride myself on.”

“An amazing effort play,” Cutcliffe called it.

Northwestern drove to the Duke 7 late but Duke kept them out of the end zone, forcing a field goal.

Duke needed one first down to run out the clock. With Northwestern out of timeouts, Cutcliffe went for the kill on third and six. Holmberg hit Eli Pancol for 16 yards and Duke went into everyone’s favorite formation, the victory formation.

Northwestern dropped darn everybody into coverage on that key play but Holmberg was patient.

“Originally, I thought I was going to be able to hit Bobo but they covered him well. Then Eli kind of caught my eye in the last second, coming across. He’s a basketball player at heart. I knew he could jump high. Knowing that and knowing the personnel goes a long way. Being able to put the ball in a spot where I know he’s going to get it and he did it.”

But Duke’s defense did the job it didn’t do two weeks ago.

Cutcliffe credited that improvement to hard work on the practice field.

“Anybody that watches us practice knows we practice with intensity and focus. Our guys have worked hard. I told them today that any stress related to football should come from the practice field not playing the games. If you’ve prepared yourselves, you can cut lose in the games.”

“Our guys fought their way back,” Cutcliffe summed up. “A really good team victory, a lot of energy in the locker room and we’re going to build on that.”