In the sweltering Saturday heat, the Blue Devils caught fire early and never looked back, while the visiting Wildcats were unable to stage what would have been a miraculous comeback.
Thanks to crafty play calling, a swarming defense and the usual dose of running back Mataeo Durant, Duke won for the 11th time in 21 tries against Northwestern, as the Blue Devils put on a clinic in the first half and held on for dear life late in a 30-23 victory.
"The game is a game of possessions, and the way you win the game is you gotta understand and see crucial possessions and make it happen. And on both sides of the ball in the second half, after having a big lead, our guys fought their way back," head coach David Cutcliffe said.
After Northwestern cut the margin to 30-20 and the setting shifted to the fourth quarter, Duke (2-1) needed someone to step up in order to wrap things up. And who better than co-captain DeWayne Carter to get the job done?
The redshirt sophomore defensive tackle stripped the ball from Northwestern quarterback Andrew Marty at the end of a 25-yard scamper, giving the Blue Devils just enough of a boost.
"The play itself, it felt awesome. I'm not gonna lie, it felt great. But the biggest thing for me was coming back to the sideline, and seeing guys jumping up and down, coaches jumping up and down, trainers jumping up and down," Carter said. "I'm able to look up at my parents in the stands this year, seeing my mom going crazy, I wouldn't be shocked if she wasn't crying, that's just her thing. So it just meant the world to me to see that I could make that impact on so many people."
Out of the halftime locker room, Duke held a 30-7 lead, and the blowout was seemingly on. But this is college football, and like always, things got interesting down the stretch. Northwestern (1-2), led by Marty—who came in for Hunter Johnson after the latter went 6-for-16 with four turnovers—and a rejuvenated offense, marched down the field out of the break to cut the Blue Devil lead to 17, and a Durant fumble on the ensuing Duke possession gifted the Wildcats another score. Now, there were just 10 measly points in it.
Yet despite the early makings of what would have been a calamitous collapse, Carter’s forced fumble was enough of a buoy to keep the Blue Devils afloat, and Duke was able to call on Durant and Holmberg—who connected with Eli Pancol to convert on a critical third-and-six with under three minutes left—to close it out.
Before the fans could even settle into their seats Saturday, the Blue Devils had lit up the scoreboard and got the crowd riled up. On the first offensive snap of the afternoon, Holmberg faked it to Durant, loaded up in the pocket and launched to Darrell Harding Jr., who had gotten separation on a deep post. The junior took it down to the Northwestern 10-yard-line, setting up a 12-yard score for Durant on a well-blocked screen pass. Two minutes of game clock had not even passed, and Duke was up 7-0.
"Just knowing their defense over time and knowing posts have been something that have been good for us against them in the past, something that Daniel [Jones] would hit a couple times against them," Holmberg said. "[Co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jeff] Faris didn't [ask] me until this morning, if I liked it as our first play and I said 'Heck yeah' and Darrell Harding made a great play for us."
Durant had 102 yards on 22 carries, including a 21-yard run that gave the Blue Devils a 14-0 lead later in the first. The senior fumbled twice, a sign that his ball security still has a ways to go, and reeled in four catches for 41 yards, an indication that his offseason goal of improving in the passing game is coming to fruition.
In his third outing as the starter, Holmberg was decisive and in command of the Blue Devils’ up-tempo attack, particularly at the outset. The North Carolina native completed 70.5% of his 44 attempts for 314 yards and the touchdown to his backfield partner, along with an interception at the hands of Northwestern linebacker and potential All Big-Ten performer Chris Bergin in the third.
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Over 100 of those yards went to Jake Bobo, who had an outstanding rapport with his quarterback all day.
"Individually, it feels good, but to be honest with you guys, man, it just feels good to get the win," Bobo on his career-best 109 yards. "I wouldn't give a darn if it was zero receptions for zero yards, to come out with a win like against those guys was huge for this program, huge for these guys down here in the locker room."
Just when Northwestern seemingly got things pointed in a positive direction in the first 30 minutes, Ben Frye snatched the ball and the mojo right back. On third and goal from the two with just over seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, safety Lummie Young IV blitzed from the secondary and knocked the ball out of Johnson’s hands, leading to a Frye recovery.
Before being benched in favor of Marty, Northwestern starting quarterback Hunter Johnson did not live up to his five-star billing, as the Blue Devils forced the Wildcat signal caller into those four head-scratching turnovers. The former Clemson Tiger threw a trifecta of interceptions to go along with the red zone fumble, with Young, Jeremiah Lewis and Leonard Johnson, respectively, all in position to snag the off-target throws and give Holmberg and company the ball back.
Even Marty was unable to finish the contest, as his costly fumble also resulted in an upper body injury in addition to the change of possession. South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski ended the game at quarterback for Northwestern.
For now, Duke has the upper hand over the Wildcats in the all-time series. Capturing such an emphatic win over a team that has been in two of the last three Big Ten Championships certainly gives the Blue Devils some confidence as ACC play fast approaches.
"We have had a bunch of physical battles with them, I admire their program," Cutcliffe remarked. "Those guys are going to be tough, well-coached, very systematic in their approach. So it's a good indicator when you're playing well enough to beat a good Northwestern team."
Next up for the Blue Devils is another Power Five home matchup, as Kansas comes to town for a 4 p.m. contest next Saturday.
Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.