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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern suffers ugly opening loss to No. 25 Stanford

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That was tough to watch.

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

Stanford did everything in its power to give Northwestern an opening day win, but the Wildcats couldn’t take advantage of their many opportunities, ultimately falling 17-7 in what was a brutal game to watch from start to finish.

Mistakes and injuries plagued the Northwestern offense, which failed to capitalize on a solid defensive performance. The unit turned the ball over four times throughout the game, generating only 210 yards and seven points.

Defensively, the group gave up 365 yards and only 10 points, but poor tackling cost them, as it seemed on every drive that a would-be tackler over-pursued and missed his target.

Excitement surrounded the program when Hunter Johnson was announced as the starter, but the highly touted transfer was very shaky in his first career college start. The former five-star finished 6-for-17 passing with just 55 yards and two interceptions.

A game that figured to be a defensive battle followed suit in the game’s opening quarter. Stanford came out of the gates firing, but Blake Gallagher thwarted a 41-yard Cardinal drive with a big tackle on a scrambling K.J. Costello on fourth down. The ‘Cats weren’t able to capitalize on the stop however, with Hunter Johnson tossing a pick off the hands of Berkeley Holman on third down in just his second throw in a Northwestern uniform.

Both teams failed to get a first down on their ensuing drives, and the first quarter slugfest continued. After more stout defense, a Johnson keeper earned Northwestern its first down of the game two minutes into the second quarter.

As the end of the first half neared, Stanford engineered its best drive of the game, putting together a 15 play, 90-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead. A two-yard touchdown pass from Costello to Michael Wilson capped the drive off.

With three minutes remaining in the half, T.J. Green entered the game and made an instant impact. The senior led a 41-yard drive, Northwestern’s longest of the half, but the drive stalled after an incompletion on fourth down.

Possibly the biggest play of the half was an unfortunate one, as a late hit from Earnest Brown IV injured Costello. Stanford kicker Jet Toner capitalized on the mistake that put the Cardinal in field goal range with a 51-yard field missile that sailed through the uprights and would’ve been good from 60. His kick put the Cardinal up 10-0 heading into the break.

Isaiah Bowser opened the second half with bruising runs that combined with a screen pass to Jesse Brown to get Northwestern inside the Stanford five, but poor decision making from Green resulted in a strip sack. The quarterback suffered a knee injury on the play and wouldn’t return for the remainder of the game. The Northwestern defense tried to bail the offense out again, recovering a fumble from Davis Mills who replaced the injured Costello, but the offense couldn’t capitalize. Charlie Kuhbander missed a 38-yard field goal as the trend of demoralizing NU play continued.

Somehow, with 5:57 remaining in the third quarter, NU remained in the game down 10. But yet again, Northwestern’s offense couldn’t make anything happen, with the drive ending in an interception by Stanford’s preseason All-American Paulson Adebo. To make matters worse, Bowser injured his left knee on the drive, taking him out of the game.

A nice throw from Mills got the Cardinal inside the red zone, but more stout defense from Northwestern forced a field goal. The ensuing kick was tipped by Trevor Kent and doinked off the upright, keeping the deficit at 10.

The offense finally put together another drive in the fourth quarter, thanks to the legs of Johnson, but the drive wouldn’t come without drama. The quarterback fumbled (fortunately) out of bounds as he stretched out to get in the end zone, but Brown punched the ball in on the next play. Kuhbander converted on the extra point to bring NU within three.

In response, Stanford quickly took the ball down the field, but a holding call gave Northwestern a massive bail out, as Stanford wasn’t able to work its way into the red zone. Two plays after the call, Mills fumbled a read-option and Joe Gaziano picked up the ball.

An injury to Rashawn Slater meant Ethan Wiederkehr was in at tackle for the ensuing drive, and a holding penalty by the sophomore killed the momentum the team had. A failed draw on third-and-14 meant NU had to punt the ball back to the Cardinal with three minutes remaining.

Stanford produced a clutch first down, but it wouldn’t be enough to run out the clock. Northwestern’s hopes of a miracle comeback had 30 seconds left to be realized, and it wouldn’t happen. A bizarre play call had Johnson rolling out to his left, and Casey Toohill got to him, forcing another strip sack that resulted in a touchdown, bringing the game to a merciful end.