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Five observations from Duke football's first half against Northwestern

Mataeo Durant scored Duke's first two touchdowns Saturday.
Mataeo Durant scored Duke's first two touchdowns Saturday.

Duke came out in full force to start the game, posting three touchdowns and forcing two turnovers in the first quarter. Northwestern came in as favorites, but the Blue Devils dominated the first half to a 30-7 lead. Here’s five of our observations from the first half:

Five observations: 

Gunnar slinging it: Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg certainly isn’t hesitating to let the ball loose. Duke opened its first drive with a 50-yard deep shot from Holmberg to Darrell Harding Jr., setting up the offense in the opposing red zone. The success with deep passes has also opened up plenty of space for the run game, with star running back Mataeo Durant totaling 102 yards on 13 attempts in the first half.

Cutcliffe isn’t afraid to take risks: Head coach David Cutcliffe’s game plan for the Wildcats hedges more on the aggressive side, especially offensively. He took a risk on 4th-and-2 from the 46-yardline during the first quarter, placing the ball in Durant’s hands for a 5-yard conversion that set up another Duke touchdown. Cutcliffe also pulled Holmberg for a drive in favor of mobile dual-threat quarterback Jordan Moore, who provided a spark with a 36-yard reception as well and 19 rushing yards in the first half.

Little offensive success for the Wildcats: During the first half, the Wildcats’ offense struggled to put together any sort of scoring threat. Averaging only 5.8 yards per play in the first half, Northwestern quarterback Hunter Johnson will need to work up to the deep passes he’s been attempting so far. Four offensive penalties totaling 25 yards slowed down the Northwestern offense significantly during the first half, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald will undoubtedly make sure to mention on-field discipline to his offensive unit during the halftime break.

Duke defensively leads the turnover battle: Four turnovers can be credited to the Duke defensive unit, and play a large role in why Northwestern struggled to put points on the board. Johnson’s three interceptions demonstrate his inability to read the Duke defense and put the ball in positions where only his receivers can get to them. He underthrew balls consistently during the first half as he evaded the Duke defensive pressure. If the Blue Devil defense continues to keep up its pressure and solid coverage so far, it’s hard to imagine the Wildcats doing much offensively in this game.

Sharing is caring: At the end of the first half, eight different Blue Devils had logged at least one reception. Jake Bobo, Harding Jr., Durant and Cole Finney each had over 30 yards, with Bobo leading the charge with his 79-yard half.

By the numbers:

  1. Two Durant TDs: In yet another strong showing, the senior put Duke on the scoreboard both on the ground and through the air. He scored the Blue Devils’ first points of the game on an 11-yard pass down the sideline, and continued with another rushing touchdown later in the first quarter. Durant continues to dominate the ground game in Durham, and his presence continues to set the tone for the rest of the Duke offense, leading the team with eight touchdowns on the season.
  2. Two Lummie Young IV Turnovers: Safety Lummie Young IV completely disrupted Northwestern’s gameplan in the first half. On the Duke two-yard-line in the first quarter, Young managed to sack Johnson and force a fumble, later recovered by defensive end Ben Frye. Young continued to make his presence felt by Johnson with a second quarter interception near midfield, halting some of the Wildcats’ only momentum of the first half. 
  3. 74.1% completion rate: Holmberg connected with Harding Jr. for a 50-yard bomb on the first play of the game, and that set the tone for the rest of the half. He finished with a 20-for-27 completion rate, and kept a commanding pocket presence for the entirety of the first half. 

A play that mattered:

It was starting to look like the Wildcats would break through in the middle of the first quarter. Until Young came on a blitz by the right tackle and strip-sacked Johnson with Northwestern in the red zone. Frye pounced on the football, and any of the momentum that was starting to trickle back toward Northwestern was immediately quelled.


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