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Defense forces 5 turnovers, 2 sacks in Duke football's upset victory over Northwestern

The Blue Devils forced five turnovers—four of which came in the first half.
The Blue Devils forced five turnovers—four of which came in the first half.

For the first time in 2021, Duke football forced the ball out of the opposing offense’s hands.

The first turnover of the game by the Wildcats occurred on only their third drive of the afternoon. Safety Lummie Young IV halted a sure-to-score Northwestern drive by sacking starting quarterback Hunter Johnson and forcing a fumble later recovered by Ben Frye, maintaining the Blue Devils’ 14-0 lead.

Johnson wouldn’t fare any better on the next two drives. First, he threw another off-balance interception to corner Jeremiah Lewis. Duke scored and took a commanding 21-0 lead. Johnson got the ball back, went for another risky throw, and Young picked him off again near midfield. The Blue Devils scored again, this time a field goal, on the resulting drive, taking a 24 point-lead in only the second quarter— but they weren’t done there.

Two Northwestern drives later, cornerback Leonard Johnson would intercept Johnson for the third time in four drives, a brutal performance that sat the senior starting quarterback on the bench for the rest of the contest. Four first-half Wildcat turnovers and a 30-7 scoreline marked a significant defensive change from the season’s first two games in which the Duke defense failed to turn over the ball a single time. The second half would be a different story.

“You know, a football game is a whole game four quarters, sometimes halves do look completely different. But what I look at is, what happened was field position and lack of turnovers,” head coach David Cutcliffe stated in his postgame presser.

The Blue Devil defense followed up its incredible performance in the first half with a lackluster, if not completely sluggish, start to the second half of the football contest. Powered by the legs and arm of senior backup Andrew Marty, the Wildcats managed to scrape back into the game with two touchdowns in the first five minutes of the second half, but Duke wouldn’t fully succumb to the pressures of a new presence in the pocket.

“We came into Tuesday morning practice our first practice week and the coaches told us ‘Strip and hit. Strip and hit’”, star defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. 

Early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern quarterback Andrew Marty rushed 25 yards downfield deep into Duke territory. Carter chased him down, forced the fumble, and prevented a Northwestern score during the closest portion of the game in the fourth quarter. Again, Frye did the dirty work and ran to fall on top of the fumble, helping cement Duke’s 30-23 win Saturday night.

Cutcliffe attributed the win to the spirit of the team and emphasized the importance of the play in particular: “DeWayne stepped up in a huge way that was a momentum-swinging play that we needed. somebody to make and play to win the game and just could not have been more thrilled with seeing him happy. That was really a significant part of the game.”

In a way, this is a signature win for Duke, certainly outweighing their blowout of NC A&T last week. Beating a successful Power Five program like Northwestern in such a gritty, defensively tough way is a reason for optimism among Blue Devil fans. Only a few weeks ago, the program and Cutcliffe himself were embroiled in controversy after handing Charlotte their first Power-Five-win in school history. Duke’s 2020 season and the first game of 2021 disappointed fans, coaches, and players alike, but the tide seems to be turning on the program this year after tonight.

“That wasn't technically a fourth-quarter win, but it was. I may have to put that one on the wall because we won the game and the fourth quarter. And we did you know, we were ahead but we did win the game. We did the things we had to do to win the game,” Cutcliffe concluded.

Duke won the football game by a close margin tonight and will feel pride in this victory for the rest of the season, but the defense must mature if the team wants to continue to rack up wins this season. Riding off the high of this tight victory and breakout performance by the defense, Duke will look to repeat this week’s first-half next Saturday at home against the Kansas Jayhawks.

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