Going into Saturday’s matchup, Duke knew it would need a rock-solid defense to compete with Northwestern.
The Blue Devils passed the test, quieting the Wildcats’attack.
Although Duke proved in its bout against N.C. Central last week that it has the tools to be lethal on offense, questions still remained about whether or not it would have the strength in its defensive line and the defensive backfield to hold off explosive plays. But in limiting Wildcat quarterback Clayton Thorson to just 120 passing yards and Northwestern to only 22 rushing yards as a team, the Blue Devils proved that they have come a long way from the team that let explosive plays swing key matchups last season.
“We just came to play hard,” redshirt senior defensive tackle Mike Ramsay said. “In the past few years, they’ve been killing us, so we made sure we could be here to stop it. As a team, we buckled up and went to work. It was great.”
From the first drive of the afternoon, Duke hounded Thorson. In the first two minutes, junior Ben Humphreys took the Wildcat junior down 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, followed by another 10-yard sack later that quarter from senior safety Alonzo Saxton II. The Blue Devils rounded out the afternoon with four sacks.
Even when Thorson was able to evade Duke’s tacklers, he could feel the pressure.
Northwestern’s quarterback, who just last year torched the Blue Devils with 320 passing yards, was just 11-for-29 before being taken out in the fourth quarter for second-string senior Matt Alviti. The Wildcats repeatedly cracked when they needed a play most, successfully converting just one of 10 third-downs. In fact, Northwestern had possession of the ball for just 18:42—less than half the Blue Devils’ time of possession.
“[The key was] giving [Thorson] little time to get the ball out, putting pressure on him,” sophomore cornerback Mark Gilbert said. “We had confidence in our secondary to lock down the receivers and then confidence in our D-line to put pressure on him, make him make hard throws.”
Although Duke’s defensive line made sure the Wildcats didn’t have room to breathe, the Blue Devils in the secondary were instrumental in sabotaging most of Northwestern’s drives.
Saxton wrecked havoc on the Wildcats’ running backs, notching seven total tackles. Just as Northwestern looked like it was finding its groove in the second quarter, Saxton ripped the ball away from the Wildcats’ Cameron Green, negating their only successful third-down conversion of the day and giving the Blue Devils good field position for another touchdown.
“I was already going for the tackle, but right when he was turning around, the ball was already in my face, so at that time I was thinking I should at least try to go for the strip, and it worked out in my favor,” Saxton said. “Our coaches always told us that once we have a good position on them, we should always go for the strip, so that’s what I did.”
Gilbert also stood out in the second half. Down 21-10 at the start of the third quarter, Northwestern came out of the locker room fired up to get back into the game. With a first down on the Blue Devil 42-yard line, Thorson attempted a pass to junior wide receiver Flynn Nagel, but the throw sailed off target to his right, finding Gilbert for an interception. The Duke sophomore picked Thorson off one more time in the fourth quarter, when the outcome was in the books.
“Our whole secondary had a big game,” Saxton said. “Me coming out with the sack and the turnover were definitely highlights, but you also had Mark Gilbert with the two picks and Jeremy McDuffie, Jordan Hayes—a lot of incompletions. It was a win overall for the secondary, which went into an overall win for the defense.”
In last season’s game, senior running back Justin Jackson was also a force for Northwestern, netting 94 yards on the ground. But Saturday, Duke never let him get free in open space.
The first-team All-Big Ten running back was limited to just seven rushing attempts with an abysmal 18 yards in total. Saxton, Humphreys and redshirt sophomore linebacker Joe Giles-Harris stifled most carries from Jackson, keeping the senior Wildcat at just 2.6 yards per run.
Although quarterback Daniel Jones stole the show on the attack, the Blue Devils have proven that they may be just as dangerous on defense, one of their biggest question marks entering the year.
“Last year overall, the defense did well, it was just the three or four explosive plays that got us,” Saxton said. “We really stressed staying focused throughout the whole game. This game, we didn’t have a lot of mental errors like we did last year. We stayed on each other. We would say after each play, ‘Alright, next play, next play, we’ve got to stay locked in,’ and that helped a lot.”