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Northwestern must solve its quarterback issues before it can move forward

Even though Marty was a breath of fresh air, there’s still at lot of questions in the quarterback room.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — After Minnesota took a 13-0 lead over Northwestern in the first quarter of Saturday afternoon’s game, the Wildcats needed someone to step up.

NU only ran seven total plays in its 2:18 of possessing the ball during the first quarter and recorded just a single first down. While the Wildcats were finally driving downfield via Evan Hull’s feet as the second quarter began, it appeared they were still far from putting points on the board.

But to the surprise of many, quarterback Andrew Marty entered the game for Ryan Hilinski on a 1st-and-10 from the Minnesota 19-yard line after missing three games due to injury and sitting out last week’s contest against Michigan despite dressing. He helped the Wildcats get on the board for the first time all day, finding Hull from six yards out.

“The quarterback has got to No. 1 move the ball down the field and score points,” Pat Fitzgerald said postgame. “No. 2, he’s got to be able to make some throws and some plays that are off the script, and I thought Andrew did a few of those things pretty well today.”

On that drive and as the second-half starter, Marty jumpstarted the offense and provided a sense of hope that has been lacking for Northwestern since he got injured against Duke.

“He really embodied the next-man-up mentality,” Chris Bergin said. “He battled his butt back just to be able to play today. I have the utmost respect for him.”

But Saturday’s game indicated that even though Marty could retake the starting role, Northwestern’s ongoing quarterback issues will not be solved instantaneously.

With Marty still recovering from his shoulder injury and the depth chart still listing Ryan Hilinski as the starter, it’s unclear where the quarterback room is headed in the coming weeks. Marty has shown that he gives the ‘Cats the best chance to win in the games he’s played, but it appears Fitz is still keeping his options open to use Hilinski again, thrusting the team into yet another tense quarterback battle.

He almost had no choice but to replace Hilinski, who struggled greatly on Saturday, going 1-for-6 for 5 yards before getting pulled. Marty, on the other hand, completed 10 of 16 passes for 93 yards and threw two touchdowns on the day. He also had seven rushing attempts for 28 yards.

“[He gives us] the ability to run the ball and the ability to keep it and make something happen on his feet,” Hull said. “He did a really good job there.”

While Marty had a few shining moments, the Wildcats still only scored on two of their 10 drives while Minnesota scored on six of eight. The energy was certainly improved with him in the game, but until Northwestern can find consistency at the quarterback position, many of its other issues will persist.

Because of the offensive struggles, the defense was put under an immense amount of pressure. Jim O’Neil’s group spent 40 minutes on the field while the Golden Gopher defense played just 20. The NU defense could only bend so much until it broke, allowing Minnesota to score more points than it had all season.

The defense struggled on its own with tackling and getting off the field on third down, but it was the offense that ultimately put them in such a strenuous situation.

“You’ve got to play complementary football,” Fitz said. “If you’re not executing very well offensively and you keep your defense out there as long as we did in the first half, it’s a recipe that they have, and we played right into their hands.”

In 2019, Northwestern faced a similar challenge. Its offense was one of the least efficient in the nation, finishing 123rd out of 130 FBS teams. However, Mike Hankwitz’s sturdy defense, which ranked 27th in the nation, could take more pressure. So far, it hasn’t seemed like O’Neil’s defense can withstand the same.

On average, Northwestern has possessed the ball five minutes less than its opponents this year, which is nowhere near as bad as Saturday. But ultimately, it’s a problem that can be solved by addressing the offensive challenges and the quarterback battle is at the helm.

“As an offense, it makes those drives that you do get a lot more important because we might not get as many drives and as many opportunities, so we’ve got to make the most of every drive and every play and stay on the field,” Hull said.

Ultimately, Northwestern doesn’t need a flashy, Heisman candidate under center — it never has. It needs consistency in a season where that has been lacking. Marty appears to be the most likely candidate to fill that role given Hilinski’s recent struggles, but until Northwestern can find a signal caller who can consistently execute, it won’t be able to resolve the plethora of problems that still lie ahead.

“That’s what’s really frustrating to me right now — the things that we’re working at, we’re not getting consistent execution in the moment,” Fitz said. “If we can’t get it done consistently, then we’ve got to play more guys and make some personnel changes.”