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Three and Out: Northwestern can start thinking big after road win over Duke

Northwestern's defense carried it to a 19–10 win over Duke, raising hopes that the Wildcats could contend for a Big Ten West title.

No. 23 Northwestern defeated Duke 19–10 on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. in what lived up to its expectations as a low-scoring affair. Entering Week 3, the two teams had combined to allow just 13 total points. They combined for just three touchdowns Saturday, with one of those coming on 98-yard kick return from Northwestern's Solomon Vault.

Here are three thoughts on the Wildcats’ win.

1. Duke’s offense was nonexistent

The Blue Devils entered Saturday outscoring their first two opponents by a combined score of 92–7 but could get nothing going against Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s defense. The Wildcats suffocated Duke all game, holding the Blue Devils to just 3 of 17 on third-down attempts and forcing two turnovers. Duke especially had trouble through the air, as quarterback Thomas Sirk struggled finding anything open down the field and averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt.

Sirk’s five-yard touchdown run—the first and only touchdown Northwestern has allowed this season—came at the 9:17 mark of the first quarter. After a stout defensive effort in a 16–6 upset win over Stanford in Week 1, the Wildcats shut out Eastern Illinois 41–0 last week and continued their imposing presence on the road in Durham.

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2. Northwestern has a legitimate chance to win the Big Ten West…

After a cupcake game vs. Ball State next weekend, Northwestern (3–0) should kick off its Big Ten slate undefeated when Minnesota comes to Evanston. It could be the start of a special year for the Wildcats. Northwestern has one of the more favorable conference schedules, as it misses Ohio State and Michigan State in East Division crossover games. If the defense remains this tough, the Wildcats could very well be at or near the top of the division standing when they visit No. 24 Wisconsin on Nov. 21, a game that could decide who will represent the West in the Big Ten championship.

The Wildcats have tricky, but not unwinnable, away games against Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan and Mike Riley’s Nebraska, but both are first-year coaches at their respective programs that have taken steps back recently by their lofty standards. Home games against Iowa, Penn State, Purdue and Illinois should also be winnable for Pat Fitzgerald & Co. If Northwestern is going to take its next step as a program, 2015 could be the year.

3. …but only if redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson proves he can be productive

Thorson looked terrible Saturday in his first career road game, completing just 9 of 23 passes for 70 yards with two interceptions and just 3.0 yards per attempt. Those numbers aren’t exactly promising in a mild road environment, even against a team whose strength is in its secondary. A 39% completion rate won’t cut it in pivotal division games.

Northwestern did find some success on the ground, albeit a dogged effort (54 attempts for 201 yards). But if the run game falters, the Wildcats are going to need to rely on Thorson to make plays through the air. If he can, Northwestern’s ceiling is higher than it has ever been in the Fitzgerald era. But if he can’t, defensive coordinators are going to stack the box and the Wildcats’ offense, like its division title hopes, will be stopped in its tracks.