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5 observations and more from No. 21 Duke football's first half against Northwestern

Running back Jordan Waters surges forward during Duke's Sept. 9 victory against Lafayette.
Running back Jordan Waters surges forward during Duke's Sept. 9 victory against Lafayette.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the 21st-ranked Blue Devils are halfway through their clash with Northwestern at Wallace Wade Stadium. Duke enters the locker room in control, holding a 17-7 lead behind a pair of Jordan Waters touchdowns:

Five observations:

Wildcats start slow: While Northwestern opened the game on offense, the visiting team could not get anything going in its first drive. The Wildcats failed to reach the first-down marker and a weak punt allowed the Blue Devils to start with a relatively short field, at the Duke 44-yard line. The home squad made Northwestern pay, too. The Blue Devils marched down the field and punched the ball into the end zone courtesy of a 24-yard rush by graduate running back Jordan Waters to open the game at 7-0. 

Special teams struggles: As the Wildcat offense struggled to get started in the first half, the punting corps faced similar challenges. Northwestern punted four times in the first quarter, for an average of just 31.5 yards. Duke’s offense was able to take advantage of the abnormally good field position it was given to score early, boosting its offensive rhythm.

Ground game differences: While Duke’s rushing attack was a key feature in its early offense, Northwestern could not seem to find room to run. In their first three drives, the Wildcats ran for a net gain of just nine yards, compared to a hefty 91 yards for the Blue Devils. Duke’s linebackers and defensive backs seemed eager to shoot the gap, shutting down inside run plays and breaking into the pocket for quick stops. 

Wildcats sitting on the ball: Duke led on the scoreboard for nearly the entire half, but it was the Wildcats who held onto the ball. Northwestern managed to sit on the ball for an impressive 16:12, despite a relatively weak offensive performance that produced just 106 total yards. 

Northwestern gets one late: While the Blue Devils held the Wildcats scoreless up until the final minute, the visiting team finally managed to put some points on the board with just 39 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Quarterback Ben Bryant hit wideout A.J. Henning at the right sideline for the easy score, making it a much more manageable 10-point deficit for Northwestern coming into halftime. 

By the numbers:

Northwestern punts: The Wildcats struggled mightily to make real offensive progress in the first half. The visiting team had trouble reaching the red zone, finding themselves inside 20 yards just once and punting the ball away to the Blue Devils four times. Duke on the other hand, never punted. 

Sacks: The Blue Devils seemed on track to hold onto a perfect pass protection record, keeping Northwestern away from junior quarterback Riley Leonard and allowing zero sacks through nearly the entire first half. Even when the Wildcats brought the pressure from an unguarded edge rusher or a strong interior push, Leonard was able to use his legs to escape and retain the unblemished record. Finally, the Northwestern defensive line got to Leonard with just three seconds left in the period, recording the first sack of the year against Duke.  

Rushing yards: This was a dominant half for the Blue Devils overall, but where Duke really shined was in the rushing game. There, the home team ground out an impressive 121 yards, including 30-plus yard rushing halves from Leonard, Waters and Jaquez Moore. Leonard led the team in the first half, putting up 59 yards including one 33-yard sprint. 

A play that mattered:

With just 1:49 remaining in the first quarter, Leonard completed a short pass over the middle to redshirt senior wideout Jalon Calhoun. Calhoun took off, getting around the edge to the left sideline. In the end, the receiver picked up 34 yards and brought the Blue Devils into the red zone. A few plays later, Waters punched the ball in from two yards out to push Duke’s lead to 14. 


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