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2019 Northwestern Football Post-Mortem, August: The future has arrived

Concerns began to swirl around NU’s new superstar, and early season struggles (again) fueled the fire.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Stanford John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

With Northwestern failing to make a bowl game this year, we have some extra time to write about the team’s failings in 2019, taking an in-depth look at how everything unfolded for the ‘Cats. From the Stanford debacle to eight consecutive Big Ten losses, our staff will examine the historically poor season.

We’re going to have a piece on each month of the year, detailing the circumstances surrounding the team. We start off with August, when hype surrounding the beginning of the Hunter Johnson era first began to be shot down by Fitz himself:


The future has arrived

When Hunter Johnson announced his intention to transfer to Northwestern in the spring of 2018, shockwaves were sent through the NU football community. It was one of the biggest stories in the history of the program, and arguably a defining moment in the Pat Fitzgerald era.

Our Northwestern had just picked up a transfer commitment from a former five-star quarterback. This was the first step to becoming a serious conference threat. The first step to becoming a national program. Or so we thought.

It was assumed by the media, fans and most people involved that Johnson would take over the reigns from graduating senior Clayton Thorson. It was a perfect situation. Johnson had to sit behind Thorson for a year, learning from one of the greatest NU quarterbacks of all time.

Then, he would take the knowledge he learned and combine it with his five-star talent to become a program changing player. As August began, it became evident that was not so clear.

Rumblings began to leak from the program that a legitimate quarterback battle was underway. Then Pat Fitzgerald spoke at Big Ten media day about how great of a player and leader Thorson was. Fitz believed that the most under-recognized player in NU history had just left the program.

“Thorson was really underappreciated outside of our program, to be a four-year starter, overcome injuries, he did it all,” Fitzgerald said.

But Johnson was still going to be the next big thing, right? The Indiana native and Clemson transfer was still establishing himself as the starter. Fitzgerald’s insistence that a quarterback battle was taking place was largely greeted with skepticism from the media and fans. This was another ploy from the veteran coach to make sure his team was focused.

Turns out, that was not the case. Fitz continued to make clear that a thorough battle for the starting spot was ongoing. Johnson’s biggest competitor was fifth-year senior TJ Green. The QB entered NU’s program as a preferred walk-on, but his knowledge of the playbook and ability to avoid mistakes made him a serious option for Fitz and offensive coordinator Mick McCall.

A column written by Teddy Greenstein began to lay the foundations of the limitations of Johnson’s game. He was reportedly struggling to understand the playbook and system. As a scout team quarterback the previous season, Johnson didn’t have the time to fully dive into NU’s system, hindering his ability to get accustomed to it.

Johnson practiced other systems last season. He can tell you about Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s [system],” Greenstein wrote.

We discussed the situation in a roundtable that featured on the site. A serious discussion began to be held about the expectations for Johnson.

But fans wanted HJ. Everybody in the program saw the five-star quarterback leading NU out of the gate and become the player everyone dreamed he would be.

It just wasn’t happening. He just wasn’t pulling away from Green. When the Big Ten Network visited a week prior to the opening game against Stanford, both quarterbacks faced the crew. The battle was on.

In the days leading up to NU’s Week One battle, there was no word from Fitz or anyone in the program. The Northwestern coaching staff notoriously likes to keep its cards close to its chest, believing in the possible advantage gained from releasing less information. Fitz and co. group took the same route heading into its opener against Purdue in 2018.

Of course, Thorson started that game. However, a two quarterback system unfolded in the contest, with Green taking a solid amount of the series’. It was a weird system, but one that led to a road Big Ten victory. If Green was going to see playing time, maybe this was how.

Minutes before the Wildcats took the field in Palo Alto, it happened. Hunter Johnson was announced as the starting quarterback. Relief was the instant feeling for Northwestern fans. The desired outcome had been found, the *correct* outcome.

But the question had to be answered: Would Northwestern come out of the gates sharp, or would the team fall prey to the same poor starts as teams of the past? There was a resounding answer to that question, and not a good one.

NU displayed an anemic offense against the Cardinal, totalling seven points and 210 yards. It was a disappointing performance from the unit, but an even worse one for Johnson, who threw for 55 yards on 17 attempts. He completed six passes and had two interceptions. Most of Johnson’s success was on the ground, but even there he had a fumble and nearly fumbled NU’s only hope at a touchdown through the endzone.

Somehow, his role as the starter of the team was cemented due to the game, though he was the second best quarterback to lead Northwestern on the day.

Green saw some action in the contest, and he was the far more efficient QB. He completed six passes on ten attempts, and led Northwestern into Stanford’s red zone for the first time at the start of the second half. But his season would end on that drive.

After extending a passing play, and extending that play even longer, and longer, and longer, he was crushed by two opposing defenders. Green fumbled, the Cardinal recovered, and he remained on the grass. In the days after the game, the news wasn’t what fans had hoped.

His senior year was done. Green needed surgery, and just like that, Johnson was officially the leader of the program. But not everything was so gloom and doom: the Wildcats had shown these rough starts before, always recovering in time for the season to reach at least some measure of success. The sky was not falling.

Not yet.

On to September.