Focused Duke is a dangerous Duke. Northwestern learned the hard way.

Duke defensive backs Alonzo Saxton II (21), Bryon Fields Jr., and Mark Gilbert react during the Blue Devils’ win over Northwestern.
Duke defensive backs Alonzo Saxton II (21), Bryon Fields Jr., and Mark Gilbert react during the Blue Devils’ win over Northwestern. bthomas@heraldsun.com

After two years of suffering frustrating losses to Northwestern, Duke reversed things and unloaded all that anger on Saturday.

A 41-17 thumping of the Wildcats improved Duke’s record to 2-0 and showed the Blue Devils can physically dominate a team from a power-five conference.

That’s important because the Northwestern game is the first of eight consecutive games against teams from those leagues that Duke has before it gets an open weekend Nov. 4.

Both offensively and defensively, the Blue Devils controlled the game with only a couple of exceptions.

Having lost 19-10 and 24-13 to Northwestern the last two seasons, Duke coach David Cutcliffe pressed upon his players and coaches to shore things up in every way during practice this week. Their 60-7 win over N.C. Central to start the season wouldn’t mean anything if the Blue Devils played poorly against Northwestern again.

Halfway through last Tuesday’s practice, Cutcliffe had harsh words for his team. It was his way of driving home how important this game was.

“I wasn’t all that complimentary to them,” Cutcliffe said.

But the way his team reacted told him the players and coaches were on the right track. They had taken what was expressed during a 50-minute meeting prior to practice and practiced with the edge they needed.

“They knew what to do,” Cutcliffe said. “If you are not focused, that won’t happen. There are at times some tough Tuesdays to where you have to go back and look at it and throw some things out because they don’t understand it. I thought from midway through the end (of Tuesday) they understood.”

That good Tuesday practice turned into a good Wednesday and, ultimately, a tremendous performance on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.

“Coach Cut and his guys wanted it a lot more than we did,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We got outcoached, outexecuted, outplayed and that starts and ends with me.”

Two weeks into the season, Duke is already halfway to its win total during last year’s disappointing 4-8 season.

Here’s how Duke got it done against Northwestern:

Record day for Daniel Jones

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones had a tough start. His fifth pass was intercepted, ending his streak of consecutive passes without a pick at 202. That’s four shy of the school record.

He had another pass intercepted later in the quarter only to see the play wiped out by a penalty (more on that later).

From then on, though, Jones played like the ACC’s best quarterback not named Lamar Jackson. Jones threw for 305 yards and rushed for 108, becoming just the second Duke player to surpass 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards in a game.

The first was Brandon Connette in 2013, in a game Duke lost 58-55 to Pittsburgh. So Jones is the first to pull off the feat while leading the Blue Devils to a win.

Jones completed 29 of 45 passes with two touchdowns. He rushed a team-best 16 times for his 108 yards with two more scores.

“I thought the biggest difference offensively was just Daniel Jones making plays,” Cutcliffe said. “We had to make plays. That means his throws, the scrambles, management – we’ve asked him to check (to other plays) more than we have in the past. He was able to do that. Huge in this game.”

Wide receiver T.J. Rahming was Jones’ top target. The junior tied his career high with 12 catches while gaining 127 yards. It’s the fourth game in Duke’s last five that Rahming has gained 100 receiving yards or more.

“We definitely felt like we could do something,” Rahming said. “We just trust Daniel, trust the process.”

The play that changed the game

Now, let’s talk about that second interception Jones threw.

Northwestern led 3-0 and Jones had already been intercepted at the Northwestern 13 to rob Duke of one scoring chance.

On Duke’s next drive, Jones used his running and passing to move the Blue Devils to the Northwestern 12.

Jones dropped back and lofted a pass over the middle near the goal line toward tight end Davis Koppenhaver. The ball bounced off Koppenhaver’s outstretched fingers and was intercepted by Godwin Igwebuike.

But Northwestern cornerback Jared McGee had delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit on Koppenhaver after the ball was tipped. The interception was wiped out, McGee was ejected for targeting and Duke had the ball on the Northwestern 6.

A Duke penalty and one play later with 52 seconds left in the first quarter, Jones scored on an 11-yard run to put the Blue Devils in front for good.

That penalty changed everything.

“We work hard to teach the guys about the strike zone,” Fitzgerald said. “The letters to the knees. Obviously that (hit) was out of the strike zone. So we’ve got to coach a little better there. It’s the right rule in our game. I believe in that rule. Obviously if we get the strike zone a little lower we get a big interception in the red zone. It really changes momentum.”

Even though the interception isn’t on Jones’ record, it might as well be from the lesson he learned.

“In the red zone you can’t afford to risk something like that and turn the ball over,” Jones said. “That was an unnecessary risk on my part and a poor decision on my part. We kind of got lucky there and saved ourselves.”

Duke quarterback Daniel Jones after the Blue Devils defeated Northwestern 41-17.

Dominating defense

Duke’s defense starts only three seniors, but it looked like a veteran group worthy of trust against Northwestern.

The Wildcats managed just 22 rushing yards on 21 attempts and were 1-of-10 on third-down conversions. Duke forced three turnovers and sacked Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson four times.

“I thought we were relentless on defense,” Cutcliffe said. “Our speed showed up in every aspect. Up front, we haven’t pressured them with our front like we did, and we did that consistently. Our linebackers can run, and they couldn’t get a running game started. Our secondary covered them and covered them consistently. So that combination, I thought our defense certainly set the tone.”

Duke senior safety Alonzo Saxton led the team with seven tackles, including a sack. He also had a fumble recovery when he ripped the ball out of Northwestern receiver Cameron Green’s hands after he had made a first-down catch in the second quarter.

“It was right when he turned around,” Saxton said. “I was going for the tackle, but the ball was in my face, and my hands were already on it. At that point it figured I would go for the strip. It worked out.”

Sophomore cornerback Mark Gilbert had the first two interceptions of his career. Saturday was only his fifth start.