Similar to the path its season took, Duke dominated early, stumbled then collected itself to finish strong in Tuesday’s Quick Lane Bowl.
The Blue Devils scored the game’s first two touchdowns and saw Northern Illinois tie the score with a series of big plays. But just as it showed resolve in surviving a six-game losing streak to still make a bowl game, Duke came back with a vengeance to score the game’s final 22 points in a 36-14 win over Northern Illinois at Ford Field.
The win means the Blue Devils (7-6) have a winning season for the fourth time in the last five years. Prior to this streak of success under coach David Cutcliffe, Duke had just five winning seasons from 1975-2012.
The route to finishing above the .500 mark this season was rocky. Duke won its first four games before suffering through a six-game losing streak. With its bowl hopes fading, Duke rallied from behind to beat Georgia Tech and Wake Forest in the final two games of the regular season to qualify for a bowl game.
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Against Northern Illinois (8-5), Duke returned to its September form. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones fired two touchdown passes and ran for a third. He gained 86 rushing yards on 16 carries and completed 27 of 40 passes for 272 yards with no interceptions.
Senior running back Shaun Wilson closed his career by rushing for 75 yards and a touchdown while also catching a touchdown pass from Jones.
Duke’s defense shut out Northern Illinois after halftime, and that unit allowed just six second-half points over the season’s final three games (all Duke wins).
The Blue Devils took control of the game in the first quarter, scoring two touchdowns before Northern Illinois collected a first down.
On Duke’s second possession, Jones completed three of four passes, including a 20-yard strike to redshirt junior tight end Davis Koppenhaver to the Northern Illinois 9.
Three running plays left the Blue Devils with fourth-and-goal on the 1. Jones kept the ball and rolled right to reach the end zone and give Duke a 7-0 lead.
One of the more bizarre play calls of the season followed and helped Duke double its lead.
After Duke’s redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Trevon McSwain sacked Northern Illinois quarterback Marcus Childers at the 11, the Huskies faced fourth-and-18. Huskies punter Matt Ference took the snap in the end zone but, instead of booting the ball to Duke, fired a pass that fell incomplete on the right sideline well short of the first down marker.
The unsuccessful fake punt gave Duke the ball at the 11. Wilson’s 1-yard touchdown run on the drive’s third play gave the Blue Devils a 14-0 lead with 3:17 left in the first quarter.
Even though it appeared Duke would roll to an easy win, the Huskies struck back early in the second quarter.
Northern Illinois’ first play from scrimmage in the second quarter was a 43-yard pass from Childers to reshirt sophomore wide receiver Spencer Tears. On the next play, Huskies’ redshirt freshman tailback Tre Harbison broke free for a 25-yard touchdown run leaving Duke up 14-7.
Following another Duke punt. Northern Illinois needed two plays to tie the score. This time, Childers threw a deep pass to redshirt junior wide receiver Jauan Wesley, who got behind Duke freshman safety Michael Carter II. Wesley caught the ball at the 30 and eluded Carter’s tackle attempt before running to the end zone for a 67-yard touchdown play that tied the game at 14-all with 12:22 left before halftime.
The Huskies got the ball back with a chance to take the lead following another Duke punt. But Duke senior safety Alonzo Saxton’s second-down stop of Tears for a two-yard loss led to a Huskies punt.
Jones and the Blue Devils, after not gaining a first down on three consecutive drives, found their groove once again to put Duke in front at halftime.
Mixing the pass and run on an 80-yard drive, Jones completed a 17-yard pass to redshirt junior tight end Daniel Helm to get the drive going. Jones gained four yards on a third-and-three play to Duke 48 and later ran 12 yards on a third-and-three play to the Huskies 33.
On the next play, Duke junior wide receiver TJ Rahming got behind the Northern Illinois secondary and Jones lofted a pass perfectly into the end zone that Rahming caught for a 33-yard touchdown play.
A missed extra point by redshirt senior kicker William Holmquist left Duke up 20-14.
Duke’s final drive of the first half covered 64 yards as Jones completed all five passes he attempted, including an 11-yard toss to Wilson for a touchdown that gave Duke a 26-14 halftime lead.
Duke added on in the second half with redshirt freshman running back Brittain Brown rushing seven yards for a third-quarter touchdown and Holmquist adding a fourth-quarter field goal.