The Blue Devils could sense the energy as it became clear in the second half that they were finally going to win, and win big, against Northwestern.
There was T.J. Rahming stomping his feet in celebration after picking up a critical third-down conversion off yet another crisp pass from Daniel Jones. Then there was true freshman Drew Jordan getting up with a spring in his step after sacking Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, the fourth time Duke took down the Wildcat redshirt junior well behind the line of scrimmage.
The Blue Devils were having fun in the second half—and for good reason—as they coasted to a 41-17 victory at Wallace Wade Stadium. Everything that went wrong the last two years against the Wildcats went right Saturday afternoon, as Northwestern was never within single digits for the last 43 minutes of the game. Duke was a home underdog but dominated the Wildcats in every statistical category and outgained them 538-191.
"Thursday night when I walked out of the team meeting out here, I expected us to win," Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I don’t play a down, so what I expect really doesn’t make a hill of beans, but I knew exactly what they thought, and they flat verbalized what they had to do win."
Jones had a coming-out party in the first test of his second season as a starter, throwing for 305 yards and running for 108 more as he accounted for Duke's first four touchdowns. He connected with Rahming, his top target, 12 times for 127 yards, with several of those catches moving the chains to demoralize the Wildcats' defense. The Blue Devils converted 15 of 22 third-down opportunities.
Ten different targets caught at least one pass from Jones, who made most of his throws right on target.
"I’m just trying to make the best plays for our team. That’s what we need—our receivers stepping up," Rahming said. "We just trusted Daniel, trusted the process and trusted the play-calling."
When the redshirt sophomore was not dropping back to pass, he also repeatedly made plays with his legs, keeping the ball himself to move the chains on several option plays and clawing his way into the end zone twice on the ground. It was only the second time in program history a player threw for more than 300 yards and rushed for more than 100—Brandon Connette did it in a 58-55 loss to Pittsburgh in 2013.
"We’ve definitely felt that energy and felt that new-year feeling," Jones said. "Being able to prove it to everyone else and in a game was fun to see. We have a confidence and a comfort about us that is probably new."
On the defensive side of the ball, Duke (2-0) pressured Thorson all afternoon. After throwing for 320 yards and three touchdowns last year, the redshirt junior could only muster an 11-of-29 performance with 120 passing yards and two interceptions, both to cornerback Mark Gilbert. The Blue Devils did an even more impressive job of shutting down the Wildcats' run game, holding them to just 1.0 yards per carry.
Jones' streak of 202 straight passes without an interception—the longest active streak in the nation—came to an end in the first quarter, but the game swung on a critical targeting call against Northwestern cornerback Jared McGee that negated a second interception in the red zone. With a second chance to score, Jones trotted 11 yards into the end zone to give Duke a 7-3 lead.
"In the red zone, we can’t afford to risk something like that and turn it over," Jones said. "That was an unnecessary risk and a poor decision on my part. We got lucky there and saved ourselves."
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The Blue Devils turned on the jets from there, stifling the Wildcats (1-1) for five empty drives in a row in the first and second quarters as they scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions to pull away. Jones found Chris Taylor wide open down the field for a 52-yard touchdown for Duke's second score and then battled his way to the end zone on a third-and-goal run on the next drive.
Northwestern took advantage of a Brittain Brown fumble with a late touchdown drive to trim the deficit to 21-10 and take a glimmer of hope into the halftime locker room, but the Wildcats did not score again until a meaningless touchdown pass in the closing minutes.
"It was a tough circumstance right there at the end of the half to have a turnover, a touchdown, and [radio sideline reporter] John Roth caught me coming off the field, and he said, 'What about the second half?'" Cutcliffe said. "I said, 'We better have the best half we’ve had since we’ve been at Duke.' And we weren’t all that far from it.
After a quick three-and-out to start the second half, the Blue Devils scored points on four straight drives to the delight of their admittedly sparse home crowd. Redshirt sophomore Austin Parker made both of his field-goal attempts, Jones connected with tight end Davis Koppenhaver on a one-yard touchdown and Shaun Wilson picked up his lone touchdown of the day on the ground.
"The first two times we played [Northwestern], we didn’t click," senior safety Alonzo Saxton II said. "This is the first game we all clicked. Offense, defense, special teams—everyone did what they had to do. We have a lot of weapons, so to do that and to know that you can trust the rest of your teammates as long as you do your job makes it easy."
Duke will get back in action next week at home against Baylor at 12:30 p.m.