DeWayne Carter happily strives to make his mother cry.
Gunner Holmberg had his widowed mother smiling and cheering often Saturday while leading Duke to 30 first-half points.
But it was Holmberg’s key plays in the fourth quarter, when a seemingly easy Duke win was put in doubt, that showed his mother and everyone how he’d matured and helped his offense grow up at the same time.
The combination of Carter’s gritty plays on the defensive line, which actually bring his mother tears of joy, and Holmberg leading the offense showed Duke to be a team with possibly a higher ceiling than everyone thought two weeks prior.
The Blue Devils toppled Northwestern 30-23 by building a 27-point lead and hanging on for dear life in the fourth quarter. Sure, rolling to an easy win in an uneventful final period, which it sure appeared Duke was on its way to doing at halftime, would have been less stressful.
But after losing 31-28 to Charlotte when the defense couldn’t get a stop on its final two drives on Sept. 3, beating a Power Five team like Northwestern was just what the Blue Devils needed no matter how they accomplished it. That it took tough plays later to secure will serve Duke better in the long run.
“That wasn’t technically a fourth-quarter win, but it was,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
The Blue Devils have a display in the Yoh Football Center that shows games they came back to win in the final period. Though they never trailed Saturday, he believes the plays Carter, Holmberg and their teammates made late make this game worthy.
“I may have them put that on the wall,” Cutcliffe said, “because we won the game in the fourth quarter. We did. We were ahead, but we did the things we had to do to win the game. That’s something to always build off of.”
Carter, the sophomore defensive end already well thought of enough to be voted a team captain, made the final quarter’s first big play for Duke.
On Northwestern’s first offensive play from scrimmage in the fourth, with Duke up 30-20, quarterback Andrew Marty scampered 25 yards up the middle into Duke territory.
After seeing Marty rush past him back at the line of scrimmage, the 6-3, 300-pound Carter kept chasing him. He finally caught him at the Duke 26, reaching from behind to knock the ball loose. Ben Frye recovered for Duke to give the Wildcats their fifth turnover of the game.
“That play itself? It felt awesome,” Carter said. “I’m not going to lie. It felt great.”
Carter said his father sends him a text every game reminding him to control what he can, which means his attitude and effort.
But his mother was on Carter’s mind when he returned to the sideline after forcing that key turnover.
“The biggest thing for me was coming back to the sidelines and seeing guys jumping up and down,” Carter said. “The coaches jumping up and down. Trainers jumping up and down. From the sideline I’m able to look up and see my parents in the stands this year. I wouldn’t be shocked if she was crying. I mean that’s just her thing. It means the world to me to see that. I can impact so many people.”
Holmberg and his offense turned in a solid day overall, amassing 558 yards. But 420 of them came in the first half when Duke led 30-7.
Two turnovers in the third quarter, including Holmberg’s first interception, helped Northwestern score 13 points to get back in the game and put pressure on the Blue Devils.
The closest Duke came to scoring after halftime was when kicker Charlie Ham’s 52-yard field-goal attempt fell a couple of yards short.
But after Carter forced that fumble, Duke’s offense gained a pair of first downs on a drive that erased five minutes from the clock. A pair of penalties, one for holding and another for an illegal blindside block, kept it from being more productive.
When Duke got the ball back again with 7:48 to play leading by 10 points, the Blue Devils picked up two more first downs to move into Northwestern territory. Holmberg gained 2 yards on a tough third-and-2 run.
Though Duke was stopped 1 yard short on a fourth-down play at the Northwestern 27, another 3:13 melted off the clock.
Northwestern kicked a field goal with 2:48 left to slice Duke’s lead to 30-23. The Wildcats, with two timeouts at their disposal, chose to kick the ball to Duke rather than try to regain possession with an onside kick.
That meant Duke’s offense, not at its best after halftime, needed another first down to salt the game away.
Holmberg gained 1 yard on first down, and Northwestern called timeout.
Mataeo Durant gained 3 yards on second down, and Northwestern called timeout.
Facing third-and-6 from its 29, Holmberg said the Blue Devils didn’t like the play they had called against what Northwestern showed on defense. So Duke also called a timeout with 2:40 to play.
The new play was designed to go to senior wide receiver Jake Bobo, who already had 11 catches in the game. Northwestern had him well covered though.
So Holmberg, well protected by his line, waited a few extra seconds before finding Eli Pancol open over the middle. Pancol’s leaping catch gained 16 yards for a first down with 2:03 left.
“Eli kind of caught my eye at the last second,” Holmberg said. “I saw him coming across. He’s a basketball player at heart, a dude that can jump high. Knowing that personnel goes a long way. Being able to put it in a spot where I knew he was going to get it. He did it. He came up for us big.”
With that, Duke could relax. Three knee down plays in the victory formation clinched the win, Duke’s first over a Power Five team in non-conference play since 2018.
For all the flash of Duke’s three first-quarter touchdowns and four forced turnovers before halftime, it still took gritty plays late when the win could have slipped through the Blue Devils’ fingers.
“You can punch a panic button when things start going south,” Cutcliffe said.
Duke, in the end, didn’t though.
Knowing they are capable of staying emotionally grounded in such situations will help Duke next week against Kansas and deeper down the schedule in ACC play.