BY JOEDY McCREARY
DURHAM, N.C. — Warren Long touched the ball three times Saturday 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 against Duke.
Solomon Vault returned the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for the touchdown that put NU (3-0) ahead to stay.
The last time the Wildcats started a season with three victories was 2013. That season, they won their next game to get to 4-0 before losing seven in a row.
NU 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 of years. We tore down that roller coaster. Burned it.’’
Quarterback Thomas Sirk had a five-yard touchdown run for the Blue Devils (2-1), who trailed 12-10 early in the fourth quarter before Long took a handoff on third-and-one, burst untouched through the line and sprinted to the end zone to put the Wildcats up by nine with 12:31 left.
‘‘That’s how it happens when a gap’s given up on a short-yardage play and a good back hits it,’’ Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
The Blue Devils failed to cross midfield on their next two possessions but forced a punt with about six minutes left. Ryan Smith called for a fair catch at midfield, but the ball bounced off his pads. Long pounced on it at Duke’s 49, and NU ran out the final 5:44.
Justin Jackson ran for 120 yards for the Wildcats, who rushed for 201 yards against a Blue Devils defense that had 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.’’
Duke led 7-3 at halftime before Vault gave NU a 9-7 lead with his big return. The teams then traded field goals before Long’s touchdown run gave the Wildcats some breathing room.
NU entered the game having allowed a combined two field goals in its first two games but yielded its first touchdown on the Blue Devils’ second possession. Sirk’s scoring run came five plays after DeVon Edwards brought an interception back to the Wildcats’ 26.