EVANSTON, ILL.—It’s finally time to take a breath.
A quick start, clutch interception and dramatic final stand helped propel Duke to a 31-23 victory against Northwestern Saturday at Ryan Field. Running a different look offensively from its season opener a week ago, the Blue Devils were dominant in the first quarter before the Wildcats made it a ball game. With another strong performance from sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard and a big game from Jordan Waters out of the backfield, head coach Mike Elko’s squad fended off a late comeback to earn a second-straight win.
"I thought we battled and scratched and clawed all the way down to the last inch," Elko said. "And we made one more play than they did."
Starting its final possession with 1:18 on the clock and the score 31-23 in favor of the visiting Blue Devils (2-0), Northwestern (1-1) connected on four quick passes before handing the ball to star rusher Evan Hull with the goal line in sight. A fumble forced by Jaylen Stinson within inches of the goal line was recovered by Duke’s Brandon Johnson to seal the win.
"It felt like a roller coaster to us, like we were up and we were down but the only thing we kept telling ourselves was, 'Don't look up, don't look at the score, just keep grinding, everything's gonna turn out the right way,'" graduate student safety Darius Joiner said.
The initial lead was built when the Blue Devils came out of the gates fast yet again, first securing a stop and then cruising 77 yards in under three minutes. Leonard and Calhoun made an instant connection as Duke’s top receiver began his day strong. He finished with a team lead in catches and yards with six for 108.
On the other side, star Wildcats rusher Hull instantly made his presence felt out of the backfield, dominating the run game and hauling in passes. He spoiled the Duke defense’s five consecutive-quarter scoreless run and scored two of Northwestern’s three touchdowns. Finishing with 31 touches and 278 total yards, Hull was the centerpiece of an offense clawing from behind the whole afternoon.
"I certainly didn't anticipate he would have 213 yards receiving—that wasn't exactly how we marked it up. But we knew he was a threat," Elko said. "They did a really good job of getting him matchups, and he was a problem for us."
Starting in the second quarter, the Blue Devil defense lost a bit of the ferocity it had earlier in the game, giving up a few big passing plays to get the Wildcats into Duke territory. Several third-down penalties on Darius Joiner, Chandler Rivers, Shaka Heyward and Joshua Pickett also gave some additional life to the Wildcat offense.
Northwestern chugged along for much of the second half with a multitude of weapons while junior quarterback Ryan Hilinksi knifed through Duke’s secondary. But ahead of it all was Hull, who found paths to the line to gain and some off of checkdowns and screens. Hilinski found Donny Navarro to make it a 28-23 ballgame with 5:49 on the clock as he and the Wildcats recaptured the momentum Duke controlled early.
Despite nearly surrendering a 21-point lead, the Blue Devils’ defense broke up 14 passes and intercepted one. That one came at the most crucial time, as the Wildcats controlled possession with a chance to go ahead late in the fourth. Johnson swooped in to pick off Hilinski and set up a Charlie Ham field goal.
"I think we ran the full gauntlet of it today with our secondary," Elko said. "If you want to talk about a rainbow of emotions for our secondary we hit them all today. We went from the one scale all the way to the other."
It took until the final play of the Blue Devils’ opening drive to see starting running back Jaylen Coleman, who promptly punched it in for the early lead. Following a penalty in the first quarter, it was Waters who wasted no time taking advantage of the extra yardage and steamrolled the Northwestern defense for a 42-yard score to put the Blue Devils up by 14 in the first quarter. Duke managed 232 yards in just more than six minutes of first-quarter offense before stalling for only two yards in the second quarter as they held a 21-10 halftime lead.
Like the start of the first half, Duke’s second-half-opening drive featured several big plays. With a 25-yard pass to Eli Pancol on third-and-15 and rushes of eight, nine and 10 yards from Waters, Coleman and Leonard to move the chains, the Blue Devils were threatening before a pass deflected off of Pancol’s hands and into the gloves of Garnett Hollis Jr. to kill the potential scoring drive and become the first Duke turnover of the year.
With the momentum momentarily turned, a methodical Northwestern drive was ended by redshirt junior captain DeWayne Carter, who forced a Hilinski fumble and gave possession right back to the Blue Devils. With the help of a facemask penalty, Duke advanced the ball only for Ham to miss a 38-yard attempt. Following the late kick to make it an eight-point game, he is 4-for-8 kicking on the season.
The back-and-forth affair continued through the third quarter, when Northwestern broke through yet again with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Hull but failed on a two-point attempt, keeping the score at 21-16 with under two minutes to go in the third.
The next Duke possession, extended by a tipped ball that found Calhoun for 51 yards, ended with a Jordan Moore toe-tap touchdown catch to bring the fourth-quarter lead up to 12. Moore got much more involved in the offense late in the game after not being targeted the entire first half.
On the last play of the first quarter, Leonard, who finished 13-for-24 with 240 yards, found Pancol deep along the right sideline, but with some contact between Pancol and cornerback Cameron Mitchell, the Wildcat defender pulled up on the play looking for offensive pass interference that was never called. Eighty-one yards later, Duke was threatening to go up 21-0. With passes of 81, 51 and 25 and rushes of 42 and 16 yards, the explosive plays were the key for the Blue Devils.
The Blue Devils return home to face North Carolina A&T next Saturday at 6 p.m.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.