The first two weeks were ugly ones for Northwestern. A struggling offense couldn't do much in two gut-wrenching losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State.
So, naturally, when a team from a Power Five conference came to Evanston on Saturday, the Wildcats stepped up.
Clayton Thorson had a career day, throwing for 320 yards and three touchdowns as Northwestern picked up its first win of the season, a 24-13 victory over Duke.
Despite a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive by the Cats on their game-opening drive, this one was routinely low-scoring through the first half. Thorson pitched a 26-yard touchdown pass to Garrett Dickerson to cap that drive, but that was it as far as points for the remainder of the two opening quarters. Duke followed up with a second-quarter touchdown, and the squads were knotted at 7 at the half.
But Northwestern scored the game's next 17 points, Thorson tossing a couple of big touchdown passes, one for 44 yards to Solomon Vault and a second to Austin Carr for 58 yards. Throw a Jack Mitchell field goal in there, and Duke's lone second-half score — a one-yard touchdown run in the game's final minute — was nowhere near enough.
The Cats ended the game with 406 yards of offense, Thorson starring with his 320 yards and three touchdowns, though he did also throw a pair of interceptions. Justin Jackson, whose day ended early in last weekend's loss, got back on track a bit with 94 yards on 28 carries. Carr had a massive night, catching six passes for 135 yards and a touchdown.
The Northwestern defense let up nearly 400 yards but did a fine job of keeping Duke out of the end zone. The Cats forced a pair of turnovers and allowed 5.7 yards per pass compared to Thorson averaging 8.2 yards per pass against the Blue Devil defense.
The win sent the Cats to 1-2 on the season, certainly not where the team though it would be after three home games against non-conference opponents. But any win following those two ghastly season-opening defeats is a welcome one.
Northwestern opens Big Ten play next weekend against Nebraska.