Northwestern fans were cautiously optimistic after the ‘Cats opening day victory against Nevada – Clayton Thorson looked good, and there were reasons to be looking up.
After NU’s second game against Duke, optimism might be hard to find. The Wildcats (1-1) fell 41-17 to the Blue Devils (2-0) in a game that bordered on painful to watch if you were a Northwestern fan or Duke hater (which is everyone, basically).
There are a lot of things to be worried about, but the first has to be Clayton Thorson. After a very strong opening performance, Thorson looked lost against a Blue Devils defense that is likely worse than many Big Ten defenses. He finished just 11-29 with 120 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. The numbers clearly weren't pretty, and the eye test wasn't much better – he consistently seemed to miss relatively easy throws and make poor decisions from the pocket.
Running back Justin Jackson didn't really pick up the slack (to put it mildly). He picked up just 18 yards on a career-low seven carries, though he did score Northwestern’s lone first-half touchdown.
Once again, Pat Fitzgerald’s ‘Cats started slow. Northwestern struck first with a field goal, but the Blue Devils retaliated with 21 unanswered points, all courtesy of Duke QB Daniel Jones. Just before halftime, Jackson scored to cut the deficit to 11 with a touchdown to make it 21-10, providing Northwestern with a little momentum going into the break.
Once play resumed, the momentum was squandered.
Thorson threw a pick on the ‘Cats' first drive of the half, which Duke turned into a field goal. The offense managed 13 yards on the second drive before punting, and Duke replied with a touchdown this time. On and on it went, and suddenly it was 41-10, Clayton Thorson was on the bench with two interceptions and most Northwestern fans had long moved on to watching the Michigan game (or anything else, really).
Backup QB Matt Alviti added a touchdown in a strong relief performance, but the damage had been long done.
Overall: not good. The loss was more lopsided than any loss last season. Northwestern continued to struggle in the trenches, failing to get much pressure on Jones while generating effectively no run game on offense. We've seen the ‘Cats turn seasons around before, but this will be tough to recover from.