Duke starts fast, holds off Northwestern in 2nd half, 30-23

ACC Football

Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg (12) runs for a touchdown against North Carolina A&T linebacker Jacob Roberts (13) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

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DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Duke scored three touchdowns in the first quarter and did all its scoring in the first half, then held off a Northwestern comeback to earn a 30-23 victory in a non-conference game Saturday afternoon.

“I would like to stop doing what losing teams do,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Losing teams turn the ball over. Losing teams have self-inflicted wounds. Losing teams give up explosive plays. Losing teams have communication issues. That’s why you lose games. This is not hard. I’m not trying to discredit Duke, but we gift-wrapped it for them.”

The Blue Devils were efficient on both sides of the ball early on, scoring on six of their first eight possessions behind Gunnar Holmberg, who completed 31 of 44 passes for a career-high 314 yards and a touchdown.

“Gunnar is playing pretty dang well. Gunnar wants to win, and Gunnar is a humble and an unselfish player,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “He’s a good thrower. But also, Northwestern did crowd the line of scrimmage. There’s no reason to be hard-headed.”

Meanwhile, the Blue Devils’ defense forced Northwestern (1-2) into a punt or a turnover on its first seven drives.

The Wildcats didn’t score until late in the second quarter, following a change at quarterback. Starter Hunter Johnson threw three interceptions and was relieved by Andrew Marty, who orchestrated a quick scoring drive that covered 75 yards in just six plays.

Northwestern mustered two more touchdown drives, but never quite caught up with Duke (2-1). Marty seemed to be scampering toward another score in the fourth quarter, but had the ball stripped away from him by Duke’s Dewayne Carter on a play that Cutcliffe called “momentum-swinging.”

“That’s one of the first plays I talked about in the locker room,” Cutcliffe said. “Just an amazing effort play. That’s what a captain does. Dewayne stepped up in a huge way.”

Marty was injured on the play and was replaced by South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski.

Despite fumbling twice, Mateo Durant ran for 143 yards for Duke and notched his third straight multi-touchdown game. Jake Bobo notched career-bests in catches and yardage, hauling in 11 of Holmberg’s attempts for 109 yards.

THE TAKEAWAY

Duke: The potency of the Blue Devils’ attack dwindled in the second half as they were outscored 16-0, but the cushion Duke built for itself was enough to keep the Wildcats away. Defensively, Duke did something it hadn’t done in seven years by forcing five turnovers. The last time the Blue Devils had that many takeaways was Sept. 20, 2014 against Tulane.

Northwestern: In addition to exiting this game with a loss and a potential question at quarterback, the Wildcats’ competence on defense has slipped. A year ago, Northwestern had the fifth-best scoring defense in all of the Bowl Subdivision, allowing an average of just 15.6 points per-game. On Saturday, it gave up at least 30 points for the second time this season.

NEW QB FOR NW?

After the defeat, Fitzgerald was complimentary of his backup quarterback’s performance.

“I thought (Marty) went in and was ready to roll. He was confident and capable,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s unfortunate that he got hurt, but I thought he gave us a spark and I’m really proud of him.”

Fitzgerald didn’t have an update on Marty’s injury and it’s unclear who will start next weekend. Hillsinki has experience – playing in 11 games for the Gamecocks in 2019 – but entered this game as third on the depth chart.

“It’s hard to get one quarterback ready, let alone three, but I’m proud of the way (Hillsinki) went out there and put some drives together too,” Fitzgerald said. “We got to take care of the ball, No. 1. Let’s start there.”

UP NEXT

Duke: The Blue Devils are home for the third straight game next weekend, facing the winless Kansas Jayhawks.

Northwestern: The Wildcats host the Ohio Bobcats of the Mid-American Conference at Ryan Field next weekend.

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