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Extra point: Duke football squeaks by Northwestern to stay unbeaten

Jalon Calhoun logged 108 receiving yards against Northwestern.
Jalon Calhoun logged 108 receiving yards against Northwestern.

Duke football earned a thrilling 31-23 upset win against Northwestern Saturday. With three key takeaways, stats and a look ahead, the Blue Zone breaks down everything you need to know about the Blue Devils’ close victory:

Three key takeaways

1. Johnson’s turnovers in the clutch

Sophomore nickelback Brandon Johnson hadn’t secured an interception in 12 career games prior to Saturday’s victory, but with the Wildcats threatening to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, he stepped up to the occasion. Johnson picked off Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski with 3:31 left in the game, leading to a Charlie Ham field goal to take an eight-point lead. With 1:18 remaining, Hilinski furiously marched the Wildcats to Duke’s 12-yard line in the hopes of tying the game. Northwestern running back Evan Hull took the ball and nearly crossed the goal line, but junior safety Jaylon Stinson forced the ball out of his hands and Johnson secured the fumble in the endzone to end the game.

2. Calhoun’s excellence

Jalen Calhoun was sublime against the Wildcats Saturday. After Northwestern rallied to score 16 unanswered points heading into the fourth quarter, the senior wideout caught a tipped 51-yard pass from quarterback Riley Leonard to breathe life back into the stagnant Duke offense. Calhoun set a career-high 108 receiving yards Saturday, with three of his catches going for over 15 yards. 

3. Ground dominance

Continuing from an excellent day against Temple on Sept. 2, Duke’s run defense was excellent, holding Northwestern to just 2.2 yards per attempt. On the other side of the ball, redshirt junior Jordan Waters rushed for 91 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 attempts, including a 42-yard score near the end of the first quarter to put Duke up 14-0. Fellow redshirt junior back Jaylen Coleman also contributed greatly to an offense that finished with an astonishing 221 rushing yards on the day.

Three key stats

1. Leonard’s aerial show

Following an excellent debut against Temple, Leonard remained unfazed in the first away game of the season. The sophomore went a stellar 8-of-11 of his attempts for 147 yards in the first half, including an 81-yard pass to senior wideout Eli Pancol on the last play of the first quarter to set up a Duke touchdown two plays later. His second half was less spectacular, as he would complete just 5-of-13 attempts with an interception, but he still tossed a clutch touchdown to receiver Jordan Moore to give Duke a 28-16 lead. At the end of the game, Leonard had averaged 10 yards per attempt to make up for his lack of dominance on the rushing end of the ball.

2. 85 yards of penalties

Despite key plays throughout the game to secure the victory, Duke’s lack of discipline on the defensive side of the ball was apparent. On a third-and-11 in the second quarter, graduate safety Darius Joiner committed pass interference on Northwestern tight end Thomas Gordon, leading to a six-yard score on the next play for the Wildcats. Later in the game, sophomore cornerback Joshua Pickett broke up a pass on a third-and-9, but was also flagged for pass interference, resulting in a score by Hull six plays later to cut Duke’s lead to five points. While Duke escaped Evanston, Ill., with the victory, head coach and defensive back specialist Mike Elko will look to reduce these costly mistakes heading into conference play.

3. 21 points in 14 minutes

Duke held the football for just over 25 minutes, almost 10 minutes less than Northwestern, but exerted mastery with its limited time of possession, especially early on. Each of the Blue Devils’ first three drives resulted in touchdowns, and each drive took less than three minutes to complete. The lightning-quick offense of the first quarter produced several huge gains, resulting in a much-needed 21-0 lead in the second quarter to further supercharge Duke’s victory.

Looking forward

At 2-0, the Blue Devils are just one win away from tying last season’s mark. Duke should no doubt feel excited heading into a matchup at home against North Carolina A&T Saturday, although the question of whether Elko’s team can close out tight games on the offensive end remains. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils have started their season with two wins for the first time since 2018 and will look to ride the momentum of Saturday’s big plays and key turnovers to more victories.


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