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Northwestern leaves Palo Alto with clarity, but not comfort at quarterback

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We know the starter after Week 1, but not in the way it was supposed to happen.

Northwestern v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Any football fan, at any given point, wants to know who is going to be leading their team under center, especially heading into a game against a marquee opponent. Clarity like that provides a bit of reassurance to offset the high level of uncertainty many of us experience before, during and after the whirlwind that is a Northwestern football game.

Just as it looked like the Northwestern offense was finally finding its groove early in the second half against Stanford after switching between signal callers in the first half, fans suddenly got that clarity. Ironically, the quarterback who looked better on Saturday isn’t the one who will be leading the Wildcats moving forward.

As fifth-year senior T.J. Green led NU down the field on the first drive of the third quarter, fans may have started to realize why there seemed to be a legitimate quarterback battle going on this summer in Evanston. But that competition suffered an abrupt ending on Saturday, as Green’s drop back on 2nd and Goal resulted in a strip sack and what ESPN is reporting as potentially a season-ending foot injury.

Regardless of who you wanted to see play quarterback for NU this year, it’s hard not to feel for the fifth-year senior.

Teammates were clearly shaken up by his injury upon learning they’d be without one of the program’s veterans. A quote like this from fellow senior leader and Green’s cousin Bennett Skowronek helps one understand both the magnitude of the situation and the importance of Green’s role on the team:

“I called him right after I found out. We were in tears, I know how hard he worked to get where he was. My heart breaks for him, how hard he’s worked and everything he’s done. I know he’s going to fight through this and come back. That’s all really, I’m heartbroken,” Skowronek said.

Northwestern v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So after Week 1, it looks as if what most fans have been asking for and expecting since Clayton Thorson took his final snap with Northwestern on New Years Eve will come to pass. Hunter Johnson is going to be Northwestern’s starting quarterback in 2019.

Most fans asked for and expected to see Johnson get the nod, but it’s hard to say anyone thought it was going to happen this way.

In the spring, it was largely assumed that Johnson would neatly take over starting duties despite Fitz, in typical Fitz fashion, refusing to name a starter. But as the season neared, that assumption started to fade as reports came out of practice that the QB battle going on in Evanston was very much a real one.

And on Saturday, we got a glimpse as to why it truly was a competition.

The five-star transfer had a tough debut in his first live game action since 2017, finishing 6-for-17 with 55 yards and two interceptions. Green was far more effective (aside from his fumble) in the limited time he saw at the helm of Northwestern’s offense. The fifth-year senior simply looked more comfortable in the pocket, although it’s reasonable to expect Johnson to experience some first game jitters.

“I think he looked like a freshman quarterback in his really true first start,” said his head coach after the game. “I think he prepared relentlessly. I think he did everything in his power to get himself ready to play. And I thought that for his first experience there’s a ton of things he’s going to learn and grow from.”

If the NU offense has any chance of improving, Johnson will certainly have to, and he’ll have to quickly with tough games rapidly approaching on the ‘Cats’ schedule. It’s fair to say that Johnson will feel more relaxed and confident knowing that Green’s injury, at least for now, ends the battle, but it remains a bit worrisome that he did so without truly beating him out with his performance on the field.

From a logistical standpoint, Northwestern’s lack of depth and experience at quarterback is also particularly alarming with Green sidelined indefinitely. If Johnson’s struggles were to continue or, god forbid, he went down with an injury, the Wildcats are quite thin, with negligible combined game experience from backup scholarship quarterbacks Andrew Marty and Aidan Smith.

Say what you want about Green taking away from Johnson’s first-team reps, but he certainly provided a competitive depth and level of experience at the position that the ‘Cats will no longer be able to benefit from for the rest of the 2019.

That being said, this may have been a blessing in disguise for Johnson and his development moving forward. It feels wrong to say that about an injury, but there’s now no distraction and speculation as to who is going to be ‘the guy’ under center for Northwestern moving forward. If he continues to struggle, he’ll have to learn from those mistakes on the field and adjust quickly without the fear of being yanked for Green. As mentioned above, this should allow the transfer quarterback to feel more relaxed and confident under center.

Either way, the clarity Northwestern received at starting quarterback over the weekend didn’t come in the way any fan could’ve wanted or expected. The starter is confirmed, but besides that, all that Northwestern fans can do for now is sit on their hands and hope that the quarterback position will provide some measure of much-needed comfort in the weeks to come.