Saturday night in Evanston for the Northwestern Wildcats was all about entering Big Ten conference play on a high note. Two words: Mission Accomplished.
In a game where the pressure was on Northwestern’s offensive line, they significantly improved. Instead of standout running back Justin Jackson running the table, it was the passing game that made most of the noise in Saturday’s matinee, which ended in a 24-13 victory.
To begin, on the opening drive the Cats went 75 yards on 10 plays. Superback Garrett Dickerson capped it all off by hauling in a 26-yard laser from redshirt sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson for his first-career touchdown.
After a pair of Duke possessions, one of which led to a punt and the other led to a Godwin Igwebuike interception, the safety’s first since 2014, the quarter was rather quiet and full of punts.
In the second, Blue Devils running back Jela Duncan walked into the end zone from four yards out to tie the game up at 7. Other than Duncan’s touchdown and a couple of turnovers, it was a bad half of action.
Duke punter Austin Parker changed the culture of the game in the second half after mishandling a snap. Parker’s gaffe helped propel the Wildcats to a dominant second half.
Moments after the mishap, Clayton Thorson threw a 44-yard bomb for a touchdown to wide receiver Solomon Vault, which was Vault’s first-career receiving touchdown and longest-career catch. From that point forward, Northwestern never looked back.
Senior receiver Austin Carr would soon join Dickerson and Vault in the touchdown department. The former walk-on had himself one hell of a night. Carr recorded 6 receptions for 135 yards and a touchdown. According to InsideNU’s Sam Brief, it was Northwestern’s best receiving game since November 30, 2013, when Christian Jones hauled in 182 yards from Trevor Siemian.
“He’s an incredibly special young man,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald in the postgame press conference. “He just exudes success.”
And despite throwing two interceptions, being sacked five times and completing only 18 of 39 attempts, Thorson set a career-high with 320 passing yards. Throughout the game, Thorson was tested as Duke was utilizing a number of blitz packages.
“He saw every pressure that I think he will see in his career,” said Fitzgerald. “He’s won 11 games as a starter, and I think he hung in there pretty well with the amount of time he got.”
Top offensive target Justin Jackson finished with 28 carries for 94 yards- 69 of which came in the first quarter.
On the defensive side of the ball, preseason All-American linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. had five tackles, including two for loss, and a fumble recovery. Sophomore Jared McGee of the secondary led the game with nine total tackles. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones was held to 27-of-48 passing and zero touchdowns- a solid night for the Wildcats defense.
After finally capturing their first win, it won’t get easier for Fitzgerald’s crew. Chicago’s Big Ten Team now heads into Big Ten conference play as their home stand continues next Saturday night against Nebraska, who beat No. 21 Oregon on Saturday 35-32.
Strap in, Northwestern fans, it’s going to be quite a ride for the remainder of the season.