When people say football is ‘a game of inches,’ they aren’t joking.
After a record-breaking day for Northwestern (1-1, 1-0 Big Ten) senior running back Evan Hull, his goal-line fumble with seconds left in the fourth quarter against Duke (2-0, 1-0 ACC) was a tough pill for him, his team and the NU faithful to swallow. Although the Cats would’ve still needed to convert on the two-point conversion to force the game into overtime, you can only think ‘what if,’ right?
However, it’s impossible to live in that reality. More importantly, it’s critical to recognize that outside of Hull’s fumble, NU had many miscues that played into the 8-point defeat — and that’s the biggest issue.
A large part of that came early on in the game, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the pigskin.
A major reason behind the defensive woes was a point of emphasis coach Pat Fitzgerald always expresses — tackling. Duke got everything they wanted, and then some, on offense in the first quarter, picking up 144 passing yards and 88 rushing yards. It was clear NU’s defense struggled to match the Blue Devils’ energy.
This disparity was put on display in their attempts to take down both Duke running backs Jordan Waters and Jaylen Coleman. Both backs picked up at least five or more yards on each rush in the quarter, and even worse, both rushing touchdowns were run up the middle. The opportunity to make plays were there, but the miscalculations and oversteps on cutbacks, like junior linebacker Xander Mueller’s miss on Waters’ 42-yard touchdown run, took those chances away.
On the offensive end, NU was unable to get its offense’s motor going on their first possession, but looked like they did on their second. Yet, a combination of senior wide receiver Malik Washington’s false start and a botched snap resulting in a seven-yard loss slowed the Cats’ momentum down. Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski picked the yards back up on a connection to Hull, but without these miscues, NU could’ve been in closer range for graduate kicker Adam Stage, who went on to miss the 38-yard field goal.
These mishaps set Duke up to continue its tear, which they did. In the final play of the first quarter, the Blue Devils quarterback Riley Leonard hit his wideout Eli Pancol, covered by senior defensive back Cam Mitchell, leading to an 81-yard reception and pass interference call on Mitchell.
As the play ensued, both Pancol and Mitchell met each other with contact, leading to Pancol pushing off Mitchell, creating separation, and a flag being thrown. The Bolingbrook native assumed the flag was called on Duke, which stopped his pursuit of the wideout for a few seconds before eventually tackling him. As a result, NU found themselves down by 21-0 at the beginning of the second quarter.
Although these early errors only captured the Cats’ miscues from the first 15 minutes of the contest, these errors played a huge factor in NU’s game plan for the rest of the game — pivoting to the goal of cutting down Duke’s 21-point lead.
It’s also important to note, NU outperformed Duke in yards both in the second and fourth quarters. So, the Cats were knocking at the door and competing at the same level as Duke, but with such a tight margin for error they could afford down the stretch, the hole they put themselves into became more and more difficult to escape.
Plays like Hilinski’s crucial interception in the fourth quarter and the defense’s unlucky break through Duke’s 51-yard tipped pass reception fall into this category. But, if NU wasn’t chasing the Blue Devils lead, maybe these game changers wouldn’t have been as impactful.
During Monday’s press conference, coach Pat Fitzgerald expressed that the team’s lack of production early in the game against Nebraska was an area the team needed to clean up. Two weeks later against Duke, this issue still stuck out like a sore thumb.
With lower ranked teams like Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) next on the clock, NU can afford to work through its issues and still pull out a victory. Shoot, they almost did against a good Duke team. However, with the Cats heading to Happy Valley to face Penn State in three weeks, Big Ten play is a different animal than out of conference — each miscue will be more crucial than ever.
NU’s home-opening performance wasn’t terrible in its entirety, nor is it the end of the world — it’s only game two — but it revealed the problems both sides of the ball still need to fix. If there were two weeks to make in-game adjustments, these upcoming two are the perfect ones to do so.
Every team is bound to make mistakes every game. But most of the time, the winning team is the one that racks up the least. Now, it’s up to the Cats to choose which side they want to be on.
Email: [email protected]
Read More: Miscues on both sides of the ball lead to NU’s defeat against Duke