EVANSTON, Ill.—Mark Gilbert hobbled to the Ryan Field sidelines, unable to put any weight on his left leg. A few minutes later, the Blue Devil cornerback was carried out of the medical tent and onto a cart before being whisked off to the hospital.
Gilbert's injury left the Duke secondary barren—or so it seemed.
With safety Jeremy McDuffie already out, the Blue Devils turned to a group featuring two redshirt freshmen, two sophomores and eight combined career starts.
Those five, along with Duke's front six, however, put together a defensive clinic, dominating Northwestern at the line of scrimmage Saturday and keeping the Wildcats off the scoreboard for almost 55 minutes to seal a Blue Devil win.
"It’s hard when you see one of your own guys go down with an injury," safety Michael Carter II said of losing Gilbert. "It seemed to be pretty serious when he didn’t come back, but at the end of the day, everybody’s got to be ready to go and everybody was ready to go today. They moved me out, moved Leonard in, and we kept balling."
Balling would certainly be an accurate description. Northwestern moved the ball into Duke territory on nine of its last 13 drives and each time, it ended in a punt, turnover or the end of a half.
But it didn't look like that was going to be the case from the opening kickoff. The Wildcats needed only 5:10 to put together a 79-yard touchdown drive that included a long scamper from tailback Jeremy Larkin.
Way too quickly, the hosts were quickly up 7-0 and the Blue Devils were on their heels.
"[Northwestern] came out with a script, and they always have done that a little bit with us, got a feel for who they were," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I thought Coach Guerrieri and Coach Albert did a great job of adjusting, and we really got aggressive on defense. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a defense play better than ours did in the second half.
"We didn’t give up a point, so it’s hard to play much better than that."
Senior linebacker Ben Humphreys, who led the way with 15 tackles, took the blame for some of Duke's early mistakes. He acknowledged, though, that it took a team effort to get things straightened back out.
"I’m really proud of the young guys that stepped up. For a lot of them, this is the first true road game of their careers and they did not play like it," Humphreys said. "We just became that aggressive, attacking style of defense like we know we are."
Although the Wildcats piled up more than 300 yards the rest of the way, it was futile. Northwestern got into the red zone just once more and even then, it couldn't capitalize, turning the ball over on downs.
And sparking the Blue Devil offense was a pair of interceptions—the first coming when Carter stepped in front of a pass in Wildcat territory and the second on a ugly long pass from Northwestern's Clayton Thorson that floated right into the hands of safety Marquis Waters.
The very next play, quarterback Daniel Jones flung a 52-yard pass downfield to Johnathan Lloyd, who scored Duke's second touchdown of the day to put the Blue Devils ahead for good.
"It was a turning point," Humphreys said. "We settled in like the way we should’ve the first possession, dug our heels in, and played like that the rest of the game."
A game ball certainly goes to Carter, who delivered the best showing of his career. The 5-foot-10 sophomore nearly took his pick to the house, but stepped just out of bounds on the Northwestern sideline.
Without Gilbert—likely for the foreseeable future—Duke will need more of the same from Carter if its defense has plans of holding things down while Jones heals up.
"It was kind of surreal," Carter said. "I saw the ball come out and I was like, ‘This ball’s mine.’ [Defensive backs] coach [Derek] Jones really put into my head that once the ball’s in the air, I’ve got to become a receiver. It was a phenomenal feeling."
Through two games, the Blue Devils have held two FBS teams to an average of 10.5 points per game—a mark that would have been the best in the nation last season.
Although there's basically no chance they can sustain such a pace over the course of an entire season, it's clear the pieces are there to make Duke one of the best defensive units in the ACC.
"You get kind of shocked with a bit of adversity the entire game. The week’s been a little bit like that, so I can’t say enough for our coaches’ ability to adjust and our team’s ability to get better as it went on," Cutcliffe said. "We did what we had to do to win."
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."