Post-Game Analysis: Duke
by Jonathan Hodges


I predicted a physical, hard fought battle on Saturday night in Durham, and that is exactly what transpired as Northwestern (2-0, 0-0) escaped with a 24-20 win over Duke (1-1).  At times it seemed like the exact inverse game of what we saw last year, with Duke controlling the time of possession and racking up a ton of yards on NU, while the Wildcat defense stiffened in the red zone and the offense took advantage of Blue Devil mistakes to come up with the win.

On offense, the Wildcats basically gave up on the ground game early, instead opting for CJ to air it out - and that he did with some pretty long throws, on his way to racking up 226 yards through the air AND a 25 yard reception from Eric Peterman.  I would assume that since Duke's from 7 were pretty strong, NU opted to take advantage of Duke's relatively weaker secondary.  But, the 'Cats suffered from quite a few dropped passes (at least one each from Brewer, Peterman, and Ward), although later in the game we saw clutch catches from Lane, Peterman, and Ward as the senior receivers stepped up when needed.  Another divergence from last year's game was the fact that McCall called running plays in the red zone, and that resulted in scores.  Northwestern went 4-4 in the red zone with 3 TDs (2 Sutton rushes and 1 Conteh rush) and a field goal (which capped the first half and gave NU a 7 point lead going into the intermission) - which was a very positive difference relative to last year's poor showing inside the opponent's 20.

Defensively, the 'Cats gave up yards all over the place, BUT, they restrained Duke from making the "home run" play.  Duke tried, mind you, throwing multiple passes deep, but each time the ball was a bit errant or the receiver couldn't come up with the ball.  Credit the DBs and DL for doing just enough to pressure the receivers and QB, respectively, to keep those long passes at bay.  Of course, don't fool yourself into thinking that this defense shut down the Blue Devils like they did the Orange in week 1, they gave up 472 offensive yards to Duke, including 178 on the ground (with RBs breaking a lot of tackles) and 294 through the air.  But they ended up tightening up in the red zone, allowing only 2 Duke TDs on the night in 5 opportunities (along with 2 FGs), and also came up with a strip and fumble recovery following a catch.  And, it was the NU D that came up with the stop late in the game on Duke's last attempt to try to grab the victory that sealed the game.

Credit Fitz with putting a solid game plan together; he took chances when he needed to (the Peterman throw to Bacher immediately following a Duke error on special teams where the ball was snapped over the punter's head; the fake FG pass attempt), but getting the team to the point where they could win the game.  Don't fool yourself into thinking that Duke is the same pushover that we've seen the rest of this decade, they are an improved team with some experienced and talented players that will make some noise this season.  On defense, their front 7 are very talented, and they have some quality players on offense, especially at receiver where true freshman WR Williams burned NU and senior WR Riley was contained by an ankle injury sustained early in Saturday's game.  Going on the road any time is also tough, but it was made even tougher by hot and humid conditions coupled with the tropical storm that moved through the area earlier in the day (although there seemed to be no effect at game time as it looked like perfect weather since the storm had already moved off to the north).

All in all, it was satisfying for the 'Cats to come away with a close road win and, at least to some degree, avenge last year's loss.  Now it's time to move onto a tough in-state I-AA/FCS foe in Southern Illinois as the Wildcats return to Evanston.

Player of the Game:  Northwestern QB CJ Bacher (14-31, 226 yards passing, 1 rec for 25 yards receiving, 4 carries for 5 yards rushing)  CJ kept things together and executed well late in the game (the long pass to Peterman to set up the go-ahead TD) in order to propel NU to victory.  Don't be fooled by his passing completion rate, either, as there were multiple dropped balls from the NU receivers.  A key was that he threw no interceptions (the NU offense did not turn the ball over) which went a long way to help NU minimize mistakes and take the win.  The coaching staff asked him to step up by calling mostly passing plays and in the end he came through.

NU Honorable Mentions:
- RB Tyrell Sutton (16 carries for 66 yards, 2 TDs) His presence in the red zone helped NU do something it couldn't do last year which is score TDs.  Although the coaching staff very much limited his touches (NU passed the ball on 33 out of 60 offensive snaps while Conteh and Bacher took 4 carries each), he still averaged 4.1 ypc and punched it into the end zone when he was asked to do so.  It's easy to see now how running the ball in the red zone can end up as the difference in a close game.
- DE Corey Wootton (5 tackles, 0.5 sacks)  His stats may not show it, but Wootton caused a lot of disruptions on his end of the line, and had a big role at the end of the game as he gained a lot of penetration and had a shot at the QB, but was held which brought back Duke's TD pass.  Following that, the NU DL put pressure on Duke's Lewis and forced him to make a bad throw to end their shot.  Wootton's work also allowed Davie to come in off the edge and get 2 QB hurries and help the NU defense get just enough pressure to prevent huge plays from Duke.
- CB Sherrick McManis (10 tackles)  The ball was definitely being thrown throughout the NU secondary and McManis made some nice open field tackles, a couple of which prevented some big plays.  It looked like he provided the best coverage on the day, which isn't saying much considering NU gave up 294 passing yards, but he kept things in front of him and prevented the long back-breaking play.
- NU Offensive Line (0 sacks)  While they didn't exactly pave the way in run blocking, they did hold off a very strong Duke defensive front and gave Bacher basically all day to find the open receiver.  After a lot of pressure from the Blue Devils last season, they stood up to the test against the Duke pass rush this year (with only one starter carrying over) and credit them for helping CJ have a good day passing (especially when the pressure was on late).
- HC Fitz  After some very questionable and straight up bad calls last year against Duke (i.e. taking 3 points off the board; allowing McGee to get pass-happy in the red zone), things were much different this year.  Fitz called a very solid game as the defense didn't allow any big Duke plays while the offense (and special teams) took risks when it needed to.  NU had some long completions of its own to keep drives going and set up scores.  And, most importantly, NU capitalized off of Duke mistakes - i.e. the snap over the punter's head that gave NU great field position and allowed NU to score a TD 2 plays later (that most likely changed the game).  On special teams, NU's punting game was very effective as they switched between the high punt and the rugby-style line drive punt during the game depending on the situation - and the coverage team was always there to make the stop.
- Senior NU Defenders (Smith: 11 tackles, Kwateng: 11 tackles, Arrington: 8 tackles)  No, they shouldn't be proud of allowing close to 500 yards to the Duke offense, but they came up with stops when they needed to.  Smith was all over the field making tackles and saving NU from suffering the results of big Duke plays on multiple occasions.  And Kwateng and Arrington came up with stops in the middle of the field despite some solid efforts from the Duke RBs.

What to Work On:
Despite a hard-fought road win, any 'Cats fan should see that there is a lot to work on following the game against Duke, especially with the Big Ten season creeping up on NU.
- Offensive Line (run blocking)  Yes, Duke's front 7 is experienced, talented, and physical, but so are most of the defenses in the Big Ten.  They definitely did not open holes the way they did against Syracuse a week earlier, and the 'Cats didn't even reach 100 yards on the ground for the day.  The result of the poor showing on the ground was that the NU offense never really got into sync and couldn't put together long, time-consuming drives.  It also forced NU to punt 8 times on the day.
- Defensive Line  Gill was back in the game, and although they got a couple sacks (Gill had one, which was his only stat on the day), they failed to reach the QB many times and gave him plenty of time to throw the ball.  It was good to see them getting penetration, but they just couldn't get to the QB - credit Lewis with good mobility and HC Cutcliffe with good play calling to keep the pressure at bay.  In the future, though, this unit will have to close in on the QB quicker while also preventing them from racking up yards on the ground (Duke averaged 4.0 ypc and 178 on the day).
- Receivers (drops)  The NU receiving corps had multiple drops, including some from key players (Peterman, Ward, Brewer, and even Sutton).  In close games, especially when the ground game isn't going well, the receivers must hang onto balls to keep drives alive - fortunately some of them (Peterman, Ward) made up for early errors later in the game with some clutch catches.
- Short Offensive Drives:  As discussed earlier, the poor run blocking, lack of running the ball, and dropped balls from receivers all contributed to the short offensive drives for NU, but this caused a major disparity in time of possession in the game (allowing Duke to basically control the tempo), which Duke led almost 2:1 (Duke 39:15 to NU 20:45).  NU's longest possession in terms of time was 3:04 (the go-ahead TD score in the 4th quarter); the next closest was the 2:13 drive to grab a FG before halftime.  Meanwhile, Duke had 5 possessions lasting longer than 3 minutes.  Credit the running game for these facts - Duke's was working while NU's was not.  This is almost exactly the opposite of the first game of the season for NU where it basically controlled the clock and the ball for the 2nd half of the game.

Random Observations:
- The NU OL starters were (from left to right): Netter, Kennedy, Burkett, Taylor, and Mattes.  It appears as though Mattes was healthy enough to get the starting nod and Taylor was good enough to beat out Belding for the starting RG spot.
- Credit the NU special teams with a pretty solid game.  Demos had 8 punts on the day, and although he only hit one inside the 20, many punts were from deep in NU's end and he had a 40 yards/punt average.  The coverage units on both punts and kickoffs were very good, allowing an average of 7.8 yds/punt return and 15.7 yards/kick return.  Villarreal has executed each time he has been called upon this year, going 7/7 on XPs and 1/1 on FGs (a 35 yarder).  NU got one good punt return from Peterman, picking up 18 yards, and on kickoffs we got to see Mabin return some for the first time (he averaged 22 yards/kick return on 2 returns).
- Penalties:  NU definitely limited its mistakes on the night which helped propel it to victory: they had only 4 penalties for 33 yards.  A huge improvement over last year's 100+ yards of penalties.  Duke didn't have many, either, but the holding call on their second to last play from scrimmage was huge.  This leads me to my next point...
- Big Ten officials: The Big Ten officials did a nice job of basically staying out of the way and calling obvious penalties only, which one may not have been able to tell if they were listening to Duke's broadcast of the game.  Unlike the ACC officials last year who called more penalties in a game than I think I've ever seen, these officials "let them play" and made calls when they needed to.  The biggest question of the night was the play when NU stripped the ball from a receiver following the catch and then gained possession, which was held up after review, but probably only because there was no good camera angle to show definitively if the receiver was down when the ball came out (without conclusive evidence, the ruling on the field must stand).  The Duke broadcast made comments multiple times about the clock running when it shouldn't have been, but the fact is that the timekeeper is provided by the home team - so they should have brought the issue up to their own people.  The officials are on the field calling the plays and its up to the timekeeper in the booth to follow their signals.  Of course, with the rule changes regarding the clock this season, it makes it a bit tougher for the timekeeper, but the blame should be placed with the correct party.
- Length of Game: Regarding those rule changes that affect the length of the game, NU has ended up with 2 relatively short games in its first 2 chances: against Syracuse the game was 3:03, and against Duke the game ran 3:02 (last year the average nationally was around 3:30).  If the rule changes were made to make the college game run about the same length as the NFL game, it is a success (at least as far as NU is concerned) since they specifically target 3 hours for TV purposes.  Also, note that the rule changes have not adversely affect the end-of-game situations (at least for the 'Cats) with NU actually running out the clock in both of its first 2 games.
- Broadcast on ACC Select: It was about what I expected, which was some subpar camera work coupled with Duke's radio broadcast (which wad definitely poor and not only due to bias), but it was a way to watch the game.  The quality of video wasn't that bad, and considering that it was the video feed for the stadium's scoreboard TV, it was alright.  At least the audio and video were synced, which isn't always the case with internet feeds.  There was no on-screen score or stats (as it was the scoreboard feed), but at least the radio broadcast kept viewers aprised of the situations.  The most annoying aspects, though, were the on-screen graphics that went right up to the snap of the next play, and the fact that they didn't show most of the XP and FG attempts at all (when NU ran its fake FG one could only tell from the audio, although fortunately they did show a replay).  It will be nice the rest of the season, though, as every game will be televised at least on the BTN.
- Jordan Mabin (5 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 2 kick returns for 44 yards) The redshirt freshman Mabin made his first impact on both defense and special teams after garnering some playing time in the first 2 games.
- Third Down Conversions: NU definitely was not good on the day, going 4-13, but Duke wasn't much better, going 5-16.  While the offense needs some work to improve their number, credit the NU defense for hunkering down when the pressure was on.

Final Thought

While it was uncomfortably close game, 'Cats fans should be satisfied with a tough road win and a win over Duke that at least somewhat avenged last year's dissappointment.  Duke is an improved team and presented some challenges for the Wildcats, but Northwestern perceveried and came up with defensive stops and offensive scores when it mattered, and won a hard-fought game.  Hopefully the 'Cats learned some valuable lessons from the game and will utilize those the rest of the way; the NU coaching staff definitely took some lessons away from last year's game and its first game of this year to lead NU to the victory.  Next up is a tough in-state I-AA/FCS opponent in Southern Illinois back in Evanston, and at least Northwestern can finally put Duke behind them.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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