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2019 Northwestern Football Post-Mortem, September: Warning signs surface

As the losses began to pile up, some optimism remained, but doubts began to creep in.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Matt Marton-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. After a topsy-turvy August, we head to September, where spirits remained relatively high even as dread began to set in:

The Stanford loss was an ugly one. But over the ensuing bye week, the entire Northwestern universe cautioned patience. After all, the Wildcats had struggled out of the gates during each of the past three seasons, and though the loss of TJ Green was an unfortunate one, there was little reason to believe that Hunter Johnson’s struggles against a seemingly solid Cardinal team were due to anything other than first-game jitters.

Sure enough, he came out firing against UNLV. The game’s main highlight, a 50-yard touchdown to JJ Jefferson, was a thing of beauty:

And after a relatively slow start, the Wildcats defense remained stiff, the offense impressed, and NU was on to Michigan State with a .500 record.

The Spartans would be a big test, of course: Mark Dantonio’s squad was on the warpath after a tough loss to Arizona State dropped them from 18th in the AP Poll to out of it entirely. For a conference opener, even a home one, this seemed like a tough matchup. But Northwestern was healthy and seemed ready to go, looking like they had fixed at least some of the mistakes that plagued them in Palo Alto.

They had not. After Lewerke led his offense to a quick opening drive touchdown, the Wildcats had a golden opportunity to respond thanks to a forced fumble on the punt return. But the drive stalled after reaching the one-yard line, with Isaiah Bowser going nowhere on second and third down before a disastrous fourth down speed option created a turnover on downs.

Northwestern would not again reach the goal line until there were less than three minutes to play. By that time, Aidan Smith had been in at quarterback for nearly a full quarter, Lewerke and his offense had completely worn down the Northwestern defense to the tune of 31 total points, arguably their worst defensive performance of the season, and fans were hustling out of Ryan Field. To add injury to insult, Bennett Skowronek, who was injured during the contest, had played his last snap in 2019.

But again, things were early. It was a bad loss, but in the postgame press conference, Fitzgerald emphasized his faith in Johnson despite the strange decision to replace him so early, and even as he criticized the transfer quarterback’s performance. Northwestern football had responded from deeper holes in the last few years, after all.

A trip to Camp Randall and the top-ten Wisconsin Badgers loomed. After crucially taking down Paul Chryst’s squad at home last season to help clinch their Big Ten West title, the Wildcats seemed to have some measure of confidence leading up to the game, though Wisconsin had blown absolutely every one of their opponents to that point out of the water.

Sure enough, Northwestern bucked that trend. After the Badgers drove right down the field to start the game behind Jonathan Taylor and their jumbo set, the Wildcats quickly went three and out, and things looked to be headed in the wrong direction. But a stop by the NU defense and a silly penalty on an ensuing fourth down from Rachad Wildgoose begat an extended drive.

Huge gains from Drake Anderson and Johnson on the ground got the ball deep into Badger territory. The ‘Cats had to settle for three points, but on the whole, things were looking up. Each team held the other in check throughout an ugly second quarter, with just six first downs racked up in total, and heading into halftime the Badgers appeared to officially be on upset watch.

But after a few more punts, disaster struck. Johnson was massacred in the backfield, on a play that looked very similar to the one that sealed the Stanford game, and the Badgers scooped and scored. Suddenly, the offensive line couldn’t protect their quarterback, with free rushers coming on seemingly every other play. Postgame, Fitzgerald alluded to some of the responsibility for the schemes being on Johnson’s shoulders, but regardless, the passing game was swamped.

Early in the fourth quarter, with the ‘Cats now trailing 17-3, HJ went down for good, taking a massive hit to the midsection after converting a third-and-seven by hitting Riley Lees. Again, Aidan Smith entered, and after his first two passes fell incomplete, he was hit as he threw by star linebacker Zack Baun. The ensuing pass fluttered into the arms of Noah Burks, who returned it for a touchdown. That appeared to be that.

But the Wildcats wouldn’t quit. After Ray Niro III recovered a muffed punt, Smith used the short field to his advantage with a drive that ended with a Drake Anderson touchdown. After recovering the ensuing onside kick, NU didn’t do much, but then, a late, long, run-heavy drive was capped off by a Jefferson touchdown reception.

Unfortunately, Northwestern missed two point conversions after each score, with each play call being questionable to say the least. They couldn’t do anything with another late drive, and Wisconsin took it, 24-15.

After the game, the conversation focused on the quarterback position, the excellent play of the defense, and Fitzgerald’s questionable decision-making. But even with the ‘Cats sitting at 1-3, optimism remained. They had taken the #8 team in the country down to the wire, and if not for some untimely turnovers and miscues, their defense may well have won the game for them.

Little did Northwestern fans know that the muffed punt Niro recovered to keep hope alive would be the last turnover the ‘Cats forced until November ninth. During that same time span, a brutal offensive output would manage just a single touchdown.

September had come and gone, and despite an unfortunate record, things weren’t looking so bad. But October, and an entirely new world of despair, were lurking on the horizon.