DURHAM Last weekend, new Duke coach David Cutcliffe told the student section to leave the goalposts at Wallace Wade Stadium intact until a bigger victory.
They'll have to wait a while longer.
Despite gaining 472 yards of total offense and earning almost twice the time of possession, the Blue Devils (1-1) could not make big plays when they mattered the most, losing to Northwestern (2-0) 24-20 on Saturday night.
As a result, Duke failed to start a season 2-0 for the first time since 1998, still hasn't won consecutive home games since 1997, and lost the opportunity to win back-to-back contests for the first time since 2003.
“I told the team: ‘It's not time to hang your head, but it is time to be frustrated,'” Cutcliffe said. “That was a frustrating loss.”
Although the Blue Devils' defense didn't force a turnover or manage a sack, Duke still had chances throughout the second half.
Trailing 17-13 in the fourth quarter, Duke converted a fourth-and-5, then scored a go-ahead touchdown on a 16-yard run during which quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (24-for-42, 256 passing yards) ran around the right side and got up-ended on his way to the end zone. The ball appeared to touch the ground before Lewis broke the plane of the goal line, but Lewis was credited with the touchdown. (And even if it had been ruled a fumble, a Blue Devil recovered it.) That gave Duke a 20-17 lead.
But on Northwestern's next possession, the Wildcats drove 72 yards, capped by a 2-yard run by senior tailback Omar Conteh. Duke allowed Northwestern to convert two third-and-10s on the drive, and also committed pass interference in the end zone to help set up the scoring rush that made it 24-20.
Trailing by four with 2:20 left, the Blue Devils got a break when Northwestern had to re-punt because of an illegal procedure penalty. Junior Leon Wright returned it to the Northwestern 29. But on a 4th-and-5, a holding penalty brought back the 24-yard touchdown completion. On that re-do, quarterback Thaddeus Lewis' pass was incomplete.
“I was worried about the touchdown, but I did see the hold,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. “A lot of times in that situation when the quarterback gets out, big plays happen and obviously Thaddeus got out and made a nice shot, but we had a nice pass rush.”
In the end, wide receiver Johnny Williams finished with 11 catches for 135 yards, the most by a Duke freshman since 2005.
But the result was a far cry from last year's game at Northwestern, when the Blue Devils stopped the Wildcats on four straight plays from the Duke 7-yard line with 38 seconds remaining, winning to halt their 22-game losing streak. After that game, Duke students did tear down a Wallace Wade goalpost – even though the game was played in Illinois.
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