The Northwestern Wildcats looked entirely lost. Until they didn’t.
They had absolutely no shot to compete in the second half against Duke in Durham. Until they did.
They couldn’t even put a single point up on a Duke defense that had allowed 31 and 17 to Charlotte and North Carolina A&T, respectively. Until they could.
Simply put, it was one of the worst games Northwestern had played in the Pat Fitzgerald era. Until it wasn’t.
The “until” point, of course, was the moment that Pat Fitzgerald benched struggling starting QB Hunter Johnson and replaced him with veteran backup Andrew Marty.
The Ohio native, whose lone career start came in NU’s 2019 season-closing dismantling of Illinois, relieved Johnson after his disastrous four turnover performance in the first half of Saturday’s contest — paired with an equally incompetent and incapable showing from Northwestern’s defense — left Northwestern down 27-0 to the Blue Devils with 2:16 left in the first half. And although the senior didn’t finish the job on the road — leaving the game, which ended in a 30-23 Duke victory, with an upper-body injury after fumbling in the fourth quarter — the spark that he provided his team changed the narrative of the game entirely.
It was as close to a tale of two contests as it gets, or a play of sorts in two distinctly different acts.
In Act I, the Wildcats were completely obliterated. On the very first play from scrimmage, NU let the play clock run down to zero and was called for delay of game. The penalty was symbolic of the entire offensive performance under Johnson’s leadership, as the ‘Cats gained just 139 yards and scored zero points with the Clemson transfer at the helm, all while his four turnovers — three interceptions and one fumble on third and goal — devastated their scoring prospects.
Taking a cue from their teammates on the other side of the ball, the NU defense was putrid to start the game. Allowing one big play after another, they gave up 388 yards and 27 points in the first 27 minutes of the game.
Exit Johnson and enter Marty stage left, which signaled the start of Act II.
On his first play Saturday, Marty completed a beautiful strike to Malik Washington for a 13-yard gain and a first down. Five plays and several chunks of yards later, he connected with an open Jacob Gill for a 31-yard touchdown pass. The drive’s only flaw was that it left too much time on the clock, as the Blue Devils marched the ball down to the NU 32 yard-line in the minute and 17 seconds that remained in the half and cashed in an extra three points on a 50-yard field goal to leave the score at 30-7 at the half.
When the teams reemerged from their locker rooms for the second half-hour of play, the Northwestern defense seemed to have picked up on the infusion of energy Marty had provided, forcing a quick stop to put the ball back in his hands. Furthermore, they wouldn’t allow a point in the second half, tightening up drastically from their porous first half look.
Marty, all the while, continued to play at a high level. He scored touchdowns on Northwestern’s first two offensive drives of the second half to bring the ‘Cats within 10.
“As soon as [Marty] came in, there was no drop-off,” Evan Hull, who finished with 80 all-purpose yards, said. “Everybody was excited to see him in, and we started making plays.”
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, things would soon take a turn for the worst for their protagonist. On a run that seemed to have touchdown potential, Marty was hit from behind, causing him to lose the ball and injure himself in the process. Just like that, he was out of the game and replaced by Ryan Hilinski.
Despite a late drive to put NU within a touchdown, the offense never got going quite the same after Marty’s departure. The gap opened by the Blue Devils in the first half was simply too big for another Wildcat QB to mend, and, in the end, the 19 points scored off of Johnson’s four turnovers provided more than the difference in the game.
“We got ourselves in a hole on the road,” Fitzgerald said. “You can’t do that against anybody and expect to win consistently.”
The curtain didn’t fall on the Wildcats’ season on Saturday. They’ve still got one more non-conference game against Ohio at home next week before a slate of eight consecutive Big Ten contests that will determine their bowl eligibility and the composition of the season itself.
With Marty’s status going forward still unknown, though, the team’s future is in serious jeopardy. There’s a sense of urgency behind his health, as was indicated in the words of linebacker and team captain Chris Bergin postgame.
“Marty’s a hell of a football player, a hell of a leader. We expected nothing less from him and no drop-off when he came into the game,” he said. “We hope we can get him back as soon as possible.”