Although the team started slow out of the gates, NU ultimately picked up a nice victory on Saturday, defeating UNLV 30-14 in the 2019 home opener. Here are five bigger-picture things we can take away from the Wildcats’ second game of the season:
Northwestern will employ the Run-Pass Option plenty this season
Led by Hunter Johnson, the Wildcat offense had success moving the ball for the most of the game with a level of efficiency and confidence the unit hadn’t seen in a while. Some of this success came thanks to nice reads on RPO looks from Johnson, who connected on multiple throws over the middle of the field after faking handoffs. The play calling remains a serious overall concern, but offensive coordinator Mick McCall certainly deserves some credit for employing the RPO and giving Johnson the freedom to make teams pay with his quick delivery as well as his legs.
Paddy Fisher steals the spotlight
Northwestern’s star linebacker shifted the momentum in the Wildcats’ favor in this one. Fisher stepped up big time for the ‘Cats’ D after a poor showing in the first half saw UNLV torch the ‘Cats for 189 yards on the ground. He picked off an Armani Rogers pass with the Rebels driving in the third quarter and added a forced fumble and three pass breakups to go along with it. Turnovers helped swing the game in favor of NU in what turned out to be a decisive second half performance from the defense, and Fisher was in the mix on most of them.
No Bowser, no problem
The Wildcats appear to have yet another deep group of running backs in 2019. With Northwestern’s star sophomore running back sidelined due to precaution ahead of a tough slate of games, junior Jesse Brown got the start and turned in a nice first half performance with 79 yards before going down with an injury.
These Drake Anderson moves are . pic.twitter.com/kiNo6dmiFr— Northwestern On BTN (@NUOnBTN) September 14, 2019
The spotlight then shifted to redshirt freshman Drake Anderson, who stole the show on Saturday with a huge second half outburst that saw him finish with 141 yards and a score. The running game will obviously take a step up if Bowser returns to full strength, but both Anderson and Brown showed great vision and speed behind an impressive offensive line, all of which should give Wildcat fans comfort moving forward. The unit will get a good test against one of the best run defenses in the country in Sparty next weekend.
‘Cats continue to struggle with discipline
For the second game in a row, penalties plagued Northwestern on both sides of the ball. The Wildcats allowed uncharacteristically high penalty yardage, racking up 78 free yards on eight accepted flags. NU was flagged multiple times for having an illegal man downfield on Johnson RPOs, and the corners also gave up some free yardage on pass interference calls. The ‘Cats are struggling to play mistake-free football despite coming off a 2018 season that marked them as the least penalized team (by yardage) in the entirety of the FBS.
Comfort on Special Teams (for the most part)
Charlie Kuhbander picked up some much needed confidence on Saturday, going 3-for-3 on some crucial first half field goals. His long was from 44, a range we’ve seen him hit from in the past, but it was nice to see the junior bounce back after a rough showing at Stanford two weeks ago. On top of that, sixth-year punter Daniel Kubiuk turned in one of the plays of the day for NU with this punt in the third quarter.
It's impossible to have a better punt.— Northwestern On BTN (@NUOnBTN) September 14, 2019
Well done, @NUFBFamily's Daniel Kubiuk!#ForTheBrand pic.twitter.com/VEXP6RgT1k
Kubiuk struggled on some of his ensuing punts, and the kickoff game remains a significant question, but overall, NU should walk away feeling confident in its field goal/punting teams moving forward.