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Duke’s defensive effort against Northwestern goes for naught

Duke defensive end Deion Williams (48) reacts with teammate defensive tackle Brandon Boyce (55) after a first-quarter sack of Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson.
Duke defensive end Deion Williams (48) reacts with teammate defensive tackle Brandon Boyce (55) after a first-quarter sack of Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Hold an opponent to fewer than 20 points, and the chances of victory should be high.

In fact, since 2012 (the dawn of the modern era of Duke football), the Blue Devils are 10-2 when holding an FBS opponent to 20 or fewer points. The two exceptions: Virginia Tech last year (a 17-16 loss) and against Northwestern Saturday in the 19-10 loss.

The Wildcats never established much of an offensive rhythm. Their offense was responsible for 13 of those points, as one touchdown came on a 98-yard kickoff return by Solomon Vault to open the second half (the extra point was blocked by defensive end Kyler Brown). Through one half, Northwestern had just 57 yards of total offense, an average of 0.63 yards per play. Quarterback Clayton Thorson finished 9-for-23 (39.1 percent) for 70 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He also took a sack.

But the Blue Devils, thanks to their own offensive issues, were only ahead 7-3 at that point. And as the game went on, Duke’s inability to sustain any drives — there were five three-and-outs for Duke, and 12 of 16 drives lasted for fewer than two minutes –led to the defense’s undoing on a few key plays.

“Our offense usually stays on the field a bit,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “Our kicking game usually does something to help. Then you’re thrown back out on the field. It’s kind of like dropping a foul ball in a baseball game. Generally, it will come back to haunt you.”

Northwestern only broke off a handful of big plays, but one, really, was enough. On third-and-1, running back Warren Long took a handoff 55 yards, right through the Duke defensive line, for the Wildcats’ only offensive touchdown. That made it 19-10 with 12:31 left in the game.

“We were playing really hard, and Northwestern did a good job of stepping it up,” defensive tackle A.J. Wolf said. “At the end of the day, they had a few plays on us that broke. So, hats off to them.”

Indeed, the Wildcats wore down Duke along both lines, which wasn’t surprising to see as the Blue Devils’ defensive line kept running out onto the field. Still, Duke gave up just one offensive touchdown. And intercepted Thorson twice. And held Northwestern to 271 total offensive yards (3.5 per play). If you had given Cutcliffe that offer going in, he would have taken it and figured his team would roll to a comfortable win.

Instead, it will go down as a great defensive performance wasted.

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