The Wildcats were able to run all over UNLV for their first win of the season, thanks in large part to an impressive, multi-faceted run game and a second-half defensive effort that finished things off in style.
Drake Anderson & The O-line
“Jeremy Larkin always tells me to prepare like the number one,” said Anderson postgame, and he certainly heeded the advice of the former Northwestern star and current assistant coach. Gaining 141 yards on 26 touches (plus a touchdown) is an impressive feat, a stat line that becomes even more special when considering the historical significance of this game for the Anderson family. Back in 2001, Drake’s father Damien ran for 113 yards on 28 carries against UNLV, also coming in a Northwestern win.
While Anderson was juking Rebel defenders throughout the second half, much credit has to be attributed to the offensive line. The whole game was dominated by the Wildcats up front, who dominated the battle at the line of scrimmage and gave both Anderson and Jesse Brown (who merits mention thanks to the 79 yards he garnered on just nine carries before his “lower-body injury”) a lot of room to run. The only sack that the ‘Cats gave up came from a poor decision by Hunter Johnson. Overall, it was a rare extremely impressive early-season performance from the big men up front.
Hunter Johnson’s arm strength and touch
Barring that ill-advised interception in the first half, the five-star was electric on deep throws. He finished the game with 165 yards, highlighted by a 50-yard bomb to JJ Jefferson. But Johnson’s completion percentage was hurt by shaky play from his receivers despite repeatedly putting downfield passes on the money. He could have finished the game with two or three passing touchdowns if his pass-catchers made more plays on balls that hit them in the hands.
Most notably, a back shoulder pass to Kyric McGowan in the first half would have certainly put 7 more points on the board for Northwestern. Johnson had another two passes in the second half that traveled over thirty yards in the air and could have sealed the game immediately if not for unfortunate drops.
Joe Gaziano & Paddy Fisher
The law firm of Gaziano and Fisher is the best tandem within Northwestern’s defense, and the veteran pair played like it today. The linebacker forced a fumble and an interception in the contest while his friend at defensive end finished with a forced fumble of his own, a fumble recovery and 2.5 tackles for loss. So yeah, pretty good. Both players have seen a good amount of NFL Draft buzz, and today showed why.
Honorable Mentions: QB runs, Earnest Brown IV, Charlie Kuhbander, second-half defense, attendance (shoutout band day)
Possibly the biggest reason Hunter Johnson didn’t surpass 200 passing yards for the first time was the surplus of drops across the board. The aforementioned back shoulder throw to McGowan and two deep balls to JJ Jefferson that ended incomplete were certainly catchable.
Fitzgerald even highlighted this in his post game press conference by stressing the need for more consistency from the receiving position, stating simply, “Catch the ball. Just gotta do the job, catch the ball, and they will...We’ve gotta make those big plays. Those are huge, chunk plays and they change the complexion of games.”
The receivers need to be more reliable for Northwestern to have a chance to continue their offensive success once the Big Ten slate begins.
The third phase of the game was solid from the placekicking spot mainly due to the efficiency of Charlie Kuhbander. The kickoffs, on the other hand, were not so good. Only one of them, whether Drew Luckenbaugh or Trey Finison were kicking, found its way inside the 10 yard line, resulting in fairly good field position across the board for UNLV. The defense helped bail the kickers out, fortunately, by holding its own in the second half and not allowing the Rebels to capitalize on their solid field position.
The defense in the second half was more like the Northwestern defense that we are accustomed to. However, missed tackles in the first half almost cost the ‘Cats the game. Mental errors and failing to latch on to the ball carrier led to three runs of 30+ yards, two of which were touchdowns. This trend of failing to secure the first tackle in open space has to stop before Northwestern starts playing against more talented offenses down the road.
Honorable Mentions: Hunter Johnson taking care of his health, first half defense, red zone offense