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, we examine the historically poor season.
We’re going to have a piece on each month of the year, detailing the circumstances surrounding the team. The series continues after a promising if disappointing September with October, when Northwestern’s offense reached an all-time nadir.
October: The lowest of the lows
After an overall mediocre September campaign with a few promising moments, Northwestern entered the heart of Big Ten play at 1-3, with some of its toughest competition on the horizon. With Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa lined up (three teams that started the season ranked), the Wildcats hoped to escape with at least one win, but the challenging schedule resulted in an even worse outcome than expected.
In the only winless full month of the season, the offense was hopeless, and the defense started to crumble as it could no longer carry the weight of the team on its back. NU was outscored 85-13 across the three games and extended its conference losing streak to five by the end of the month, having completed the Big Ten play 180 from 2018’s Big Ten West crown.
Coming off a strong performance in a loss against No. 8 Wisconsin, Northwestern traveled to Lincoln to take on Nebraska in hopes of earning its first conference win of the year. Unsurprisingly, the defense continued to dominate, but a late-game interception from Aidan Smith on a blatant missed pass interference call set up the game-winning field goal as time expired.
After Nebraska jumped out to an early 10-0 lead midway through the second quarter, Northwestern responded with a field goal to keep the game within one score at half. The Wildcat run game came out strong after the break, traveling 58 yards in six plays on the ground to set up a two-yard Smith rushing score that tied the game at 10.
A missed field goal from the Huskers kept the game even as the clock wound down. The defense was holding up, and while the offense couldn’t get anything going against a pretty porous Nebraska defense, they were finally starting to get something as time wound down in regulation.
Worst-case, they send it to overtime, right?
How isn’t this pass interference? pic.twitter.com/Q4bFnSYwsS— Randy Scott (@RandyScottESPN) October 5, 2019
A much-needed bye week after the heartbreaking loss allowed Northwestern to reflect on its offensive and quarterbacking struggles. It appeared Smith was the new starter in Evanston; however, the true reason behind Hunter Johnson’s absence was still uncertain.
While Pat Fitzgerald claimed it was due to a minor knee injury originally sustained against Wisconsin, HJ never made the weekly injury report. The fans were left in the dark. With uncertainty still swirling and injuries, even after the week off, beginning to mount, Northwestern next faced its toughest matchup of the season — No. 4 Ohio State.
The ‘Cats were unsurprisingly outmatched by the Buckeyes in their Friday night rematch under the lights, but somehow, the loss was even worse than expected. After Ohio State scored on the opening drive, Northwestern quickly responded with a field goal. That would be their last score of the game. The Buckeyes would finish things off with 45 straight points, beating the Wildcats for a second time in eleven months.
Smith earned the start, but he and the offense failed to produce yet again. He went just 6-for-20 for 42 yards and an interception on the day. Andrew Marty entered to relieve him in the fourth, charting a late-game pick on his only passing attempt. Again, Johnson did not see the field.
In its last matchup of the month, Northwestern, now 1-5, faced the No. 20 Iowa Hawkeyes, and the hopeless offense was challenged with one of the top defenses in the conference. The Wildcat defense held on as long as it could, but Iowa ultimately put up 20 unanswered points, resulting in the first NU shutout since 2015.
Northwestern averaged just three yards per play on offense in a dismal showing in front of a Ryan Field crowd that was beginning to dwindle, and after Iowa closed things out, Smith had failed to put together a touchdown drive for the ninth straight quarter. Johnson took no part in the action again, and the NU losing streak extended to five.
Northwestern’s offense was at an all-time low, finishing the month with just 13 points. The quarterback issues were worsening, and Johnson’s absence continued to puzzle and frustrate fans.
However, the Chicago Tribune completely changed the perspective when Teddy Greenstein reported that HJ’s absence was in part because his mother, Shana, was in the midst of recovering from chemotherapy and a mastectomy that occurred just two weeks before after a recent diagnosis with breast cancer.
Understandably, the program had not publicly commented on the reason behind Johnson’s removal from the starting role. Once his mother’s condition improved, Johnson commented saying, “at this point, things are good” but that the program decided he would be “taking football off his plate” at least for the time being.
But the rest of the program was still staring at a 1-6 record (0-5 in conference play) and the program’s worst start in 30 years.
Ultimately, October was challenging for the ‘Cats mentally, physically and emotionally. They were in desperate need of positivity amongst the struggles they faced both on and off the field.
Certainly, everybody in the program was hoping that, with November just around the corner, a new sign of hope would come with it.