EVANSTON, Ill.—From the very first play Saturday, Daniel Jones didn't flinch. Even with a Wildcat clinging to his jersey, the Blue Devil quarterback got rid of the football, finding Chris Taylor for a completion on the far sideline.
And that was just the beginning of a career half.
Jones put together an efficient first 30 minutes, racking up 159 yards and three touchdowns through the air, giving Duke all the offense it would need in a 21-7 win against Northwestern at Ryan Field. Although the redshirt junior would struggle in the second half before leaving the game in the fourth quarter with a clavicle injury, Jones' start was enough to get his team across the finish line.
"He was playing just lights out. He’s prepared hard, and that preparation, you could visibly see it," head coach David Cutcliffe said of Jones.
Although Cutcliffe didn't give specifics on the quarterback's injury, adding that Duke's medical staff would examine things further Saturday night, he was upbeat about the game's outcome.
"We’re losing one of our best football players," Cutcliffe said. "I told our team there’s no question that we’ve been talking about this all camp, that the only way sometimes we get better is through adversity, and I thought we managed to do what we had to do today."
The Blue Devils (2-0) went quietly on their opening series of the afternoon, punting after just a half-dozen plays. But three of Duke's next four possessions would go the distance, as Jones completed 11 of his 14 first-half pass attempts to help the visitors to an early cushion.
Jones' first touchdown pass capped a 14-play, 75-yard drive as he found T.J. Rahming on an inside slant to level the score at seven apiece. Then, after safety Marquis Waters pulled down the Blue Devils' second interception of the day and Northwestern (1-1) was whistled for targeting on the return, Jones launched a 52-yard play-action bomb to Johnathan Lloyd that put Duke up 14-7.
"It was just a basic play-action play and we felt like we could convert it," Lloyd said. "Chemistry [with Daniel] helps. This is our third year together, his third year starting. But he’s put in a lot of work and he’s been confident in the offseason and camp, and it’s paid off."
A series later, the Blue Devils marched down the field again.
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Following five consecutive handoffs to sophomore running back Deon Jackson to open the drive, tight end Noah Gray leaked out for a 26-yard catch to put Duke inside the Wildcats' 10-yard line. Fellow tight end Davis Koppenhaver then needed just one hand to snag a Jones pass in the back of the end zone to double the Blue Devil lead, 21-7.
"This is going to be great tape to go back and learn and teach," Lloyd said. "We made a lot of mistakes. We didn’t really play that well, especially the second half, they kind of stalled us.... Every win’s a good win, but we learned a lot about our team."
While Duke's offense struggled to hold any type of momentum, the Blue Devils' defense kept the pressure on the hosts. Northwestern managed just one series of more than 35 yards, a credit to Duke's front six—the group combined for four sacks and six tackles for loss.
But a scary injury to Mark Gilbert sent the junior cornerback to the locker room midway through the second quarter. Gilbert was grimacing as he was helped off the field, unable to put any weight on his left leg.
A potential All-American who led the Blue Devils in interceptions last season, Gilbert did not return to the contest.
"It’s exciting to see the next guy up step up and make plays," linebacker Ben Humphreys said. "Every day, we’re going to have depth on depth on depth, and it doesn’t matter who it is. These guys who are on the field are going to have to make plays. We flew around, we were the more physical team today."
Jeremy Larkin took control of the game at the outset and it looked like the sophomore might just have his way with Duke. After a rush of 40 yards that put the Wildcats deep in the red zone, Larkin punched one to put the hosts up 7-0.
After that, Northwestern found little offense—the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs four times and its quarterback duo of Clayton Thorson and TJ Green combined for only 31-of-56 passing.
The Blue Devils will stay on the road next week as they visit Baylor. A win against the Bears would push Duke to 3-0 for the second time in as many seasons.
"We look at ourselves, see what we did well, build on that," Cutcliffe said. "Unfortunately, in two games, we’ve had a pretty tough toll, but our team got better and we did the things we had to do as a team to win."