Durham, N.C. — Warren Long touched the ball three times for No. 23 Northwestern — and wound up making two critical plays.
Long ran 55 yards for a touchdown, then recovered a fumbled punt return to help seal the Wildcats’ 19-10 victory over Duke on Saturday.
Solomon Vault returned the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for the touchdown that put the Wildcats (3-0) ahead to stay.
Northwestern forced three turnovers and opened a season with three victories for the first time since 2013, when it reeled off four straight wins while earning its most recent Top 25 ranking.
That group then dropped seven in a row.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald wants no part of a repeat.
“Everybody (in the locker room) really is not concerned with what other people think of us,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been a part of that roller-coaster ride for a couple years. We tore down that roller coaster. Burned it.”
Thomas Sirk had a 5-yard touchdown run for Duke (2-1), which trailed 12-10 early in the fourth quarter but forced Northwestern into a third-and-1 at its own 45.
Long took a handoff, burst untouched through the line and sprinted to the end zone to put the Wildcats up by nine with 12:31 remaining.
“Everybody fits gaps — two guys fit outside, instead of one inside, one outside,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “You’ve seen it as long as you watch football. That’s how it happens when a gap’s given up on a short-yardage play and a good back hits it.”
Duke failed to cross midfield on its next two possessions, but forced a punt with about six minutes remaining. Ryan Smith called for a fair catch at midfield but the ball bounced off his pads. Long pounced on it at the Duke 49, and Northwestern ran out the final 5:44.
The Blue Devils finished with 327 total yards to 271 for Northwestern, but had just 152 in the second half.
Sirk finished 24 of 39 for 150 yards with an interception for Duke.
Ross Martin kicked a 38-yard field goal for the Blue Devils, while Jack Mitchell had field goals of 37 and 44 yards for the Wildcats.
Clayton Thorson, making his first road start, was 9 of 23 for 70 yards with two interceptions for Northwestern.
Justin Jackson finished with 120 yards rushing for the Wildcats, who rushed for 201 yards against a Duke defense that held its first two opponents to a combined 79 yards on the ground.
“All the stuff about speed, I think we’re a pretty fast football team,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know what the thing is about people thinking the Big Ten can’t run. I think we can run.”
The Wildcats took control of this game late in the first half by forcing two turnovers. A third — Dean Lowry’s scoop-and-score of a deflected screen pass — was overturned after a review determined it was a forward pass.
Vault then gave the Wildcats the lead with his big return, though Kyler Brown kept it 9-7 by blocking the extra point.
And Northwestern went up by five on Mitchell’s long field goal on its next possession before Martin pulled Duke back within two with his kick on the second play of the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats entered having allowed a total of two field goals all season, but gave up their first touchdown on Duke’s second possession: Sirk’s scoring run came five plays after DeVon Edwards brought an interception back to the Northwestern 26.
The teams then combined for 11 straight punts before the Wildcats started forcing turnovers, turning one — Shaun Wilson’s fumble at the Duke 40 — into Mitchell’s shorter field goal with 1:23 left that made it 7-3.