After a disappointing season opener against the Cardinal, there is lots to evaluate regarding this fresh Northwestern team. Here are five bigger-picture things we can take away from the Wildcats’ opening game:
We may have hyped up Hunter Johnson a bit too much.
As most expected, former five-star recruit turned Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson started the season at quarterback for the ‘Cats. Talk of his potential to “transform the Northwestern offense” has circulated ever since his transfer was announced, and with Johnson finally eligible to play this season, the new quarterback’s promise was one of the biggest debates coming into 2019.
Johnson ended up giving us a decent performance with his legs, but his ability to throw out of the pocket was incredibly disappointing for a player who was the No. 1-ranked quarterback in his class. He threw for just 55 yards and two interceptions in 17 attempts, seven yards fewer than teammate and competitor TJ Green, who attempted just ten passes. It’s only one game, but it’s safe to say that HJ did not quite live up to the level of offseason hype that’s been thrown around since the Holiday Bowl.
The defense is not where we thought it would be.
A flurry of missed tackles throughout the season opener came as a shock from what had been a highly anticipated defensive unit. Though the Cardinal were held to just 17 points, only 10 of which were allowed by the defense, they also clocked almost 40 minutes of possession time due to the Wildcats’ inability to get Stanford off the field.
The ‘bend but don’t break’ mentality was very much on display and turned out effective for the most part, but the unit as a whole was not particularly sharp despite not losing many starters from last year. There is work to be done.
Injuries are going to be a problem.
In just one game, Northwestern saw some of its most important players go down injured (a particularly sad sight after they released an empty week one injury report). Senior captain Trae Williams was the first to fall as the defensive backs group continues to be snakebitten, followed by Rashawn Slater, TJ Green, and Isaiah Bowser. Green, who was arguably the better quarterback on Saturday, looks like he’s going to be out for most of the season after he was forced into surgery on Saturday night.
Slater, meanwhile, is expected to be fine after reportedly cramping up, but there is no update yet on the potentially crucial leg injuries suffered by Bowser and Williams. Northwestern fans will wait with bated breath for news on the status of what are key members of each side of the ball.
Northwestern commits penalties now?
The Wildcats were whistled eight penalties against Stanford, the most notable of them a late hit to Costello’s head by Earnest Brown IV that handed the Cardinal a free three points to conclude the first half. Northwestern led the country last year in avoiding penalties, allowing just 25.9 free yards per game, but that 2018 discipline was nowhere to be found in Palo Alto on Saturday.
The game could’ve seen a much different outcome without a few critical PIs and holds from NU, and if they want to maintain the advantage they have had in the penalty category over most of the Fitz era, changes will need to be made.
Pass catchers not named Bennett Skowronek need to step up.
The story of the day for Northwestern’s offense was the struggling quarterbacks, but some blame needs to fall on the Wildcats’ receiving corps as well. NU pass catchers struggled to create separation throughout the afternoon, with Riley Lees and Skowronek the only two players to haul in multiple catches on the day.
Berkeley Holman and Kyric McGowan had a few critical drops, while any kind of contribution from the superback position was nowhere to be found: Charlie Mangieri brought in just one short pass in his first career start.
It’s only the first game, but it’s also worth mentioning that no true freshman receivers saw action on Saturday. The highly-touted Bryce Kirtz did not even make the team’s travel roster. To rectify the struggles that the receivers who did see the field had to create separation and make plays with the ball coming their way, Fitzgerald and McCall might have to let the kids loose.