After losing to a Mid-American Conference opponent to open the season, then an FCS school in week two, Northwestern got on the right track by beating a Power Five school.
Clayton Thorson threw for 320 yards and three touchdowns, Justin Jacksonrushed for 94 yards and Northwestern defeated Duke 24-13 on Saturday night.
Northwestern avoided losing its first three games to start the season, something it hasn't done since 1992. They suffered losses to MAC-favorite Western Michigan and FCS-power Illinois State.
"I think I saw a bunch of guys that celebrated their rear ends off," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "I think it just shows if you have perseverance and grit and you stay the course that you can do whatever you set your mind to."
After being held to 7 points by Illinois State last week, Northwestern (1-2) scored on the game's opening drive. Thorson connected with Garrett Dickerson for a 26-yard touchdown reception, capping a 10-play, 75-yard drive.
"I think it meant a lot. It was just the first drive of the game and it was Garrett's first touchdown catch, so that was huge, and it was fun for us," said Thorson. "When we get into that situation we have to capitalize more when we get down there.
Northwestern capitalized on Blue Devils' punter Austin Parker's gaffe in the third quarter to take a 14-7 lead. Duke (1-2) was lined up to punt, Parker dropped the snapped and wasn't able to get the punt away. Northwestern took over at the Duke 44. On the next play, Thorson found Solomon Vault wide open in the middle of the field for the go-ahead touchdown.
"We have shown flashes - which is not what you want in game three - of at times being a really good football team. We have shown flashes, unfortunately, of doing things bad football teams do. We are consistently inconsistent," said Duke coach David Cutcliffe.
Thorson also connected with former walk-on Austin Carr on a 58-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Duke's Daniel Jones threw for 279 yards with one interception. Jela Duncan had 53 yards rushing and a touchdown.
"I felt like we were prepared going in and knew what they were trying to do. It's all about execution from there," said Jones.
Byron Fields picked off Thorson's pass at the 1, setting up a 99-yard, 12-play drive to tie the game at 7 with 3:03 left in the second quarter. The drive was highlighted by Shaun Wilson's 39-yard catch from Jones.
Thorson was hurried or on his back for most of the game. Duke was throwing a number of blitz packages at the Northwestern offensive line, which they weren't able to pick up.
"He saw every pressure that I think he will see in his career," said Fitzgerald. "He's won 11 games as a starter, and I think he hung in there pretty well with the amount of time he got."
Duke: The Blue Devils failed to finish on multiple drives. Late in first quarter on fourth-down and 10 at the Wildcats' 38, it looked as if Duke was going to convert on a fake punt, but Erich Schneider, who was wide open in the middle of the field, slipped on the grass and fell before he had a chance to catch Parker's pass. Jones threw a pick to Godwin Igwebuike at the Northwestern 22 at the end of the first quarter and AJ Reed missed a 48 yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter."We shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times and it really hurt us in the end," said safety DeVon Edwards.
Northwestern: Despite Thorson getting sacked five times, Northwestern showed some life on offense. The opening scoring drive featured Jackson, and then Thorson was able to open it up in the air in the second half.
Fitzgerald backed his coaching staff after his staff received criticism with losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State. "I'm very happy for our staff. It's the all-time winningest staff in Northwestern history. We had a couple tough losses and some people are going to take shots at them and I think they shut off the noise pretty well," said Fitzgerald.
Duke: The Blue Devils visit struggling Notre Dame on Saturday.
Northwestern: The Wildcats' season-opening four-game home stand continues Saturday night against Nebraska, which beat Oregon on Saturday.