While Northwestern resolved many of its season’s offensive woes against UMass on Saturday, the passing game was certainly not one of them. Against arguably the worst defense in college football, Northwestern, yet again, could not find a solution to its ongoing quarterback issue and had to look elsewhere to produce points.
After Saturday’s matchup, Northwestern has now tried out five different quarterbacks this season: TJ Green, Hunter Johnson, Aidan Smith, Andrew Marty and most recently Jason Whittaker, who finished with two rushing attempts for three yards in what looked to be essentially a Wildcat package. However, if we learned anything on Saturday, it’s that Northwestern’s passing game is so consistently bad that it barely matters who they start under center.
Aidan Smith took the bulk of the snaps at quarterback per usual; however, he only threw 13 passes on the day. He finished at just 7-of-13 for 76 yards with two interceptions. As Fitz acknowledged for the first time all season during the post-game press conference, there were thoughts of benching Smith, as the coaching staff has been understandably displeased with the position group’s performance as a whole this season.
“Output from the quarterback room has not been up to the standard that we we’re hoping for, and that’s disappointing,” Fitz said after the game.
Not only did Smith’s performance have little positive impact on the game as a whole, but the receiving corps failed to support him as well. To put things in perspective, more members of the UMass secondary caught a pass from Smith than Northwestern receivers.
Riley Lees was the only Northwestern receiver with a catch on the day. He finished with seven receptions for 76 yards and was the only part of the passing game that looked semi-decent. Either way, the fact that Northwestern could only find 76 yards in the air against the worst defense in FBS is a huge issue in itself.
Frustrations continue to build around Northwestern’s quarterbacks with few answers forthcoming from the staff. Fitz acknowledged Johnson was inactive due to injuries he sustained last week; however, he was nowhere to be found on this week’s injury report.
When Smith looked at his worst in the first quarter after his two interceptions, rather than looking to Johnson, Fitz and the staff continued to look down the bench to Marty and Whittaker, two extremely inexperienced players who come nowhere near Johnson’s talent.
Essentially, Northwestern has become a team that needs to look elsewhere for points, as it did against UMass this weekend. Without an active passing game, Northwestern relied on its run game and special teams. Luckily for the ‘Cats, Evan Hull had a career day in his first start, finishing with 24 carries for 220 yards and four touchdowns. The freshman averaged 9.2 yards per carry and accounted for the bulk of Northwestern’s 334 total rushing yards on the day.
Special teams, and particularly Chris Bergin, also had a standout day and completely changed the momentum of the game. When UMass took the early 3-0 lead and had the chance to go up six in the first, Joe Gaziano blocked a field goal attempt, which was recovered by Bergin and returned 85 yards for the touchdown. This play completely changed the course of the game and was exactly what the Wildcats needed to get back on track after what was a nerve-wracking start.
Again, in the fourth quarter, Bergin came up big. In what Fitz later said was an accidental onside kick, Bergin made the recovery and set up an 11-yard Raymond Niro touchdown, his first career score. However, Fitz later apologized to UMass coach Walt Bell for the play.
While it was great to see some versatility in the scoring and standout performances from two groups who have not gotten enough attention this season, it’s important to keep in mind that this was against UMass. In the final two games of the season and looking ahead to next year, Northwestern will have to find a solution to its quarterback issues and cannot solely rely on other positions to produce when the QBs cannot.
These successes will likely not be recreated against an especially strong Minnesota team and an up-and-coming Illinois team, especially without a quarterback the team can trust.
While Northwestern hoped UMass would be the necessary reset it needed on offense, we now see how severe and potentially long-lasting the quarterback issues truly are. If major changes are not put into place soon, rather than being a rebuilding season, this year could be foreshadowing a new reality for NU football.