Following an underwhelming 3-9 season and a hectic offseason, Northwestern kicked off its 2020 campaign on Saturday against Maryland at Ryan Field. After allowing the Terrapins a field goal on the game’s first drive, the ‘Cats never looked back, scoring on eight of their 11 drives and keeping Maryland off the board on their way to a 43-3 victory. Here are five takeaways from the season-opening blowout of the Terps.
Peyton Ramsey is legit
After dismal quarterback play plagued their 2019 season, Northwestern received a much-welcomed infusion of hope when then-Indiana QB Peyton Ramsey announced he would be transferring to NU for his final collegiate season.
Ramsey proved that such hope was warranted with a sharp performance on Saturday night. Editor-in-chief Eli Karp predicted a “solid, but not spectacular day” of 220 passing yards and 1 TD from Ramsey in our predictions piece on Friday, and he was nearly spot on, as Ramsey wound up completing 23 of his 30 passing attempts for 212 yards and one score, good for a 94.1 quarterback rating. He also flashed his mobility, rushing seven times for 47 yards, including one cross-field, 12-yard touchdown rush in the first quarter.
Ramsey might not have put up Justin Fields-esque numbers, but he was largely mistake-free and connected with seven different pass-catchers, most notably fellow-grad transfer John Raine and senior Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who had five receptions each. His 212 passing yards were the most by a Northwestern quarterback since Clayton Thorson’s 241- yard outing in the 2018 Holiday Bowl. So, while his performance probably won’t turn any heads nationally, it was certainly enough to prove to NU fans that the quarterback position likely won’t be nearly the kind of problem it proved to be last season.
The rushing attack is lethal if healthy
We knew Northwestern’s running backs entailed a range of rushing styles, but none separated himself in 2019.
As a collective whole, the running backs were a new kind of dominant last night. Isaiah Bowser rushed for 70 yards, caught four passes for 24 more and scored two total touchdowns. Drake Anderson carried 10 times for 103 yards, including a 37-yard cross-field burst for a score in the second quarter. Evan Hull made the most of his four carries, taking one 30 yards to the house in garbage time. Even true first-year Cam Porter posted a 20-yard rush.
With help from a solid offensive line and wideouts Riley Lees and Kyric McGowan, the running backs led the ‘Cats to 325 yards rushing, more than they put up in any 2019 game but Illinois and UMass, games in which they quite literally did not throw the ball. After the game, Pat Fitzgerald praised running backs coach Lou Ayeni, saying he’s “bound to be a head coach one day,” but also noted the importance of preventing injuries. “Knock on wood,” said Fitz, “we got to keep them healthy. That was the bugaboo a year ago.”
Inexperience in the secondary were a non-factor
With safety Travis Whillock opting out of the season and cornerback Greg Newsome II inactive, there were, with good reason, a number of question marks for the defensive backs heading into the season. Redshirt first-years Brandon Joseph and Rod Heard entered the two-deep despite seeing limited field time in 2019. Coco Azema, best known for his work as a running back against Illinois, joined them.
Despite their shared inexperience, Joseph, Heard and Azema played their part and helped Northwestern’s defense thoroughly shut down Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. The ‘Cats allowed Tagovailoa only 94 yards passing on 25 attempts, with JR Pace, AJ Hampton and Azema each notching interceptions.
Without Whillock for the season and Newsome for an unknown period of time, the ‘Cats will be tested against much stronger air attacks. That said, a number of new faces had surprisingly good outings, starting the secondary’s season off on the right foot.
Maryland might be ~terrible~
Like really, really bad. It’s hard to tell how much of Northwestern’s dominance should be credited to the Wildcats’ successes and how much of it was due to the Terrapins’ abject failure in all phases of the game, but it’s safe to say Maryland has some improvements to make.
Offensively, the Terrapins stalled after their opening drive field goal, while defensively they took a beating both through in the air and on the ground. On special teams, they fumbled a kickoff return, handing Northwestern an easy three points to close out the first half. NU could’ve hung 50+ if it wanted.
Mike Locksley called last season, his first coaching the Terrapins, “Year 0,” and dubbed this season “Year 0.5” of their rebuild. After last night, it’s fair for Terps fans to ask whether or not their team will reach “Year 1.”
The Wildcats brought their own juice
During preseason camp, Northwestern developed a mantra. Without fans in attendance, players would have to account for the extra boost of energy typically provided by the crowd. In other words, they’d have to bring their own juice.
On Wednesday, Charlie Mangieri suggested that the team had “started to live by” the BYOJ mantra, and on Saturday night, the Wildcats showed ot. All game long, there was an energy and swagger to the team that wasn’t seen much in 2019. Defenders swarmed ballcarriers. The offense put up big play after big play, all while the sideline jumped and shouted with excitement.
The shift in energy was noticeable both on and off the fild and will remain essential as Northwestern plays in vacant stadiums all season long. Whether the ‘Cats can consistently play at the same level against tougher competition remains to be seen, but they brought their own juice against Maryland, and it helped lead them to a dominant victory.