DETROIT—For the third straight game, Duke faced adversity early in the second quarter Tuesday night.
It was not staring at a double-digit deficit again—or any deficit at all—but it had just seen a 14-point lead of its own disappear in the blink of eye.
Instead of folding like they did often during their midseason six-game losing streak, the Blue Devil defense answered the call to force a three-and-out, and Duke quickly scored two more touchdowns to reestablish a sizable cushion before the halftime break. The critical stretch at the end of the first half fueled the Blue Devils' 36-14 victory against Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field.
Duke closed the season on a three-game winning streak for the first time since 1962 and improbably finished better than .500 for the fourth time in the last five seasons. The win was also the Blue Devils' second bowl victory in the last three years after they had not previously won a postseason game in more than a half-century.
“As our young people come and get in this program now, there’s definitely a culture change.... You’re not trying to just get into something or get into contention for a championship. You’ve got to win one. Same thing with bowl games,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “After 10 years, I really think this is an opportunity for a new beginning of Duke football. I’m really excited about where we’re headed.”
Quarterback Daniel Jones was extremely effective as a dual threat, throwing for the last two touchdowns of the first half and adding 86 rushing yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Jones helped Duke (7-6) score more than 30 points for the third game in a row after it never crossed that threshold during its losing streak, and the signal-caller was named the game’s most valuable player.
“Daniel Jones is a tough young man,” Cutcliffe said. “He will like me saying that, because maybe a month and a half ago, I challenged him a little more than what I would want to, but I wanted to see what his response was. His response to me was one of a tough person.”
With Jones surpassing the 500-yard threshold on the ground for the season to join running backs Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown, the Blue Devils had a trio of 500-yard rushers for the first time in program history.
Jones was at his best on third down in Motown, passing or running for nine of his team's 10 third-down conversions on 19 chances. The long drives helped Duke control the clock for the majority of the game and outgain the Huskies 466-299.
“You think about Northern Illinois’ success rushing the passer and how good they’ve been at that all season, to be able to control all of that and open up holes for the running backs and give us time in the pass game was a huge key,” Jones said.
Down 26-14, Northern Illinois (8-5) threatened to mount a second-half comeback on its first possession of the third quarter, when it halted a Blue Devil drive with a fumble recovery and quickly entered the red zone on a 42-yard pass across the middle from Marcus Childers to Jauan Wesley.
It was the third time of the night the Huskies completed a pass of at least 40 yards, and the first two times, they had scored a touchdown.
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But this time around, they couldn't find the back of the end zone.
Duke's defense pushed Northern Illinois back to the 22-yard line, and a low snap on the ensuing field goal try doomed the Huskies' chances of trimming the deficit to single digits. The Blue Devils marched down the field on their next drive with the help of two third-down conversions, and redshirt freshman Brittain Brown dove into the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown to put Duke in full control.
“We were 12 of 22 [on third and fourth down] against a team that had a success rate of 28 percent on third downs. That’s pretty special in that regard. And our defense held them to 1-of-18 in third- and fourth-down conversions,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s how you win football games.”
The Blue Devils scored two quick touchdowns to start the game, one on a fourth-and-goal keeper from Jones. The other capped an 11-yard drive that came as a gift after an ill-advised decision by the Huskies to fake a punt on fourth-and-18—from its own end zone. Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey said after the game he thought his team could draw a pass interference flag based on what he saw on Duke’s first punt return.
“I was sitting down on the bench talking about the last series...all of a sudden, I saw the ball hit the ground,” Blue Devil linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “It was just confusing. I guess they saw something on film, but we were prepared for a month now.”
With the game appearing on the verge of turning into a rout early in the second quarter, Northern Illinois tied it in a flash thanks to a pair of long bombs down the left sideline. The first one—a 43-yard connection from Childers to Spencer Tears—set up a touchdown run to put the Huskies on the board, and Jauan Wesley took the second one 67 yards to the end zone to tie the game two minutes later.
Northern Illinois did not throw it deep with success the rest of the way, and it never scored again.
“The last couple of games we struggled to start fast. And we found a way to win, but we certainly made it harder,” Jones said. “Getting out to that 14-point lead was big. We had a bit of a lull there in the middle of the first half, but we found a way to finish strong.”