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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern takes over in second half to obliterate UNLV 30-14

The Wildcats started slow, but got the job done in all phases down the stretch.

NCAA Football: UNLV at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

After allowing UNLV (1-2) to hang around in the first half, Northwestern (1-1) trounced them in the second half to secure their first victory of the season. Hunter Johnson rebounded from his poor first collegiate start and performed well in his Northwestern home debut, and despite a rocky first thirty minutes against UNLV’s rushing attack, the Wildcats defense bounced back with a stifling second half performance.

Offensively, Johnson threw for 165 yards with a pair of touchdowns. One came on a 50 yard bomb to J.J. Jefferson, while the other touchdown came on a rushing attempt to start the game. Northwestern’s running backs also feasted on UNLV’s defense. Drake Anderson stepped in for Jesse Brown and shined in the second half, rushing for 141 yards on 26 attempts.

Defensively, the Wildcats were stout with four forced turnovers and five sacks. Travis Whillock and Earnest Brown each forced a fumble, while Paddy Fisher intercepted Armani Rogers to begin the second half and forced another one himself.

Northwestern began the game on offense with Johnson making some great throws on the first possession, including a 22-yard strike to Bennett Skowronek on an early 3rd-and-8. The Clemson transfer capped off the possession with a one yard rushing touchdown on a designed quarterback keeper. UNLV quickly answered back, though, with a 65-yard rushing touchdown by Charles Williams after just three plays.

On the ensuing possession, Northwestern continued to move the ball. Both Johnson and Jesse Brown came up with big plays using their legs, but the Wildcats couldn’t finish off the possession in the end zone, with Kuhbander nailing a 33-yarder instead. After the field goal, UNLV led another promising drive as NU continued to struggle against the Rebels’ rushers. Fortunately for the ‘Cats, Whillock saved the defense with a forced fumble in the flat, which Joe Gaziano jumped on to prevent UNLV from putting up points.

With a chance to take over the game after the fumble, HJ threw a brutal interception with Northwestern threatening in Rebels territory. Johnson underthrew Kyric McGowan on an ill-advised first down end zone shot. The Rebels capitalized on Johnson’s interception, and retook the lead with a Charles Williams rushing touchdown early in the second quarter.

It became evident early on that Northwestern was overwhelmed by UNLV’s speed in the first half. The Rebels, led by Armani Rogers and Williams, thrashed the ‘Cats for 189 yards in the first thirty minutes of action. After the second touchdown, though, Northwestern started to settle into the game defensively. The unit did not allow another score in the first half.

Despite a couple of promising drives on the offensive side, though, the Wildcats’ red zone struggles forced them to finish the half with two field goals from an impressive looking Kuhbander, creating a 16-14 halftime lead.

In the second half, Northwestern’s defense finally started to put their stamp on the game. Fisher intercepted Armani Rogers in NU territory to kick things off, but the havoc plays didn’t stop there. While Northwestern’s offense could not score points off of the initial turnover, sixth-year punter Daniel Kubiuk pinned UNLV at their one yard line.

After a twenty-yard rush from Armani Rogers to give the Rebels’ offense breathing room, Northwestern’s defense forced UNLV to punt thanks to a couple of TFLs. The Wildcats took over from their 40-yard line, giving the offense solid field position to make it a two score game.

Before the possession, Jared Thomas made sure his receivers were ready to deliver for Johnson. The captain, according to the TV broadcast, gave them a pep talk to help out their quarterback and not drop any passes. The unit was definitely receptive, as J.J. Jefferson hauled in a fifty-yard dime from his quarterback to give the Wildcats a 23-14 lead.

From there, Northwestern’s defense carried the Wildcats to victory. The defense immediately forced a three-and-out highlighted by a shared sack from the Miller brothers. On the ensuing defensive possession, Earnest Brown forced a fumble that Whillock recovered. Brown made his presence felt yet again on the next defensive possession alongside Chris Bergin as the pair sacked Armani Rogers on first down. The possession resulted in yet another three-and-out for the Rebels.

The defense did bend on its next possession, as UNLV moved the ball into Northwestern territory, but as Mike Hankwitz’s group has done so often over his tenure, the unit did not break, as a pair of of TFLs lengthened a field goal that UNLV then missed. Two possessions later, after two additional sacks forced a turnover on downs, the Wildcats sealed it with Anderson’s first career touchdown.