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Column: It may be 2019 all over again

The signs are all too familiar.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Northwestern at Indiana Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Northwestern’s game against Duke featured a play eerily resemblant of one that occurred in the Wildcats’ first game of the season in 2019.

After failing to score a single point early on against Stanford, Northwestern inserted T.J. Green into the game for the last possession of the first half. Green led a drive into Stanford territory that ultimately stalled and left NU without any points. The drive was solid enough, however, for Fitz to trot out Green to start the second half. On the Wildcats first possession of the half, NU drove the ball deep into Stanford territory. On second and goal, the play below occurred:

Green fled from a few Stanford defenders in the pocket before attempting to secure the ball and brace for a sack, only for Stanford to punch it out anyways. To make matters worse, that play was Green’s last of the 2020 season, as he injured his foot severely enough to need surgery.

Green’s last snap of the 2019 season resembles a moment from Saturday’s matchup against a Power Five school similarly weak at football school, yet strong academically.

In this year’s version of the game, Pat Fitzgerald’s unheralded backup QB, Andrew Marty, initially entered the game with his team trailing 27-0 late in the first half. On Northwestern’s first offensive possession of the fourth quarter, with a chance to cut the Blue Devils’ lead down to a single possession, the ‘Cats started with the ball at midfield.

In this edition of the play, Marty weaved through Duke’s first two levels of defense on a rush deep into Blue Devil territory before tucking the ball close to his chest with both hands and turning his head over his left shoulder to check for nearby defenders, only for a Duke defensive lineman to swat the ball over Marty’s opposite side. An unlucky, unfortunate play that only turned worse once that same Duke defender hopped (most likely unintentionally) on Marty’s shoulder for the ball and forced Marty out of the game.

Given what we know about Andrew Marty as a competitor, it is difficult to envision any scenario where he is not out for an extended period of time in the future, given his inability to play the rest of the game after leading such an inspiring comeback. This is especially true after we saw him in a sling on the sidelines.

Despite all the similarities between the two plays above, there is one common denominator that has not been mentioned yet: both quarterbacks were replacing former five-star QB, Hunter Johnson.

Johnson is the same QB who Fitz was willing to name his starting quarterback two weeks in advance of this season’s opener in an attempt not only to increase Johnson’s familiarity with his top receivers, but also, likely, to boost his confidence.

And if you still believe that Fitzgerald’s logic behind the QB announcement cannot possibly be an indictment of the offensive staff’s trust in the other QB options, or even an attempt to instill some confidence in Johnson, something the QB has struggled with in his NU tenure... if, rather, you believe Johnson performed head and shoulders above the rest of the QBs in camp, then I believe you have too much trust in a QB that has now completed 95/183 passes for 856 yards, five touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 45.9 quarterback rating through his nine-game Northwestern career.

While some NU fans were understandably excited about Johnson being named Northwestern’s captain prior to the season commencing, it would have been an extremely negative start to Johnson’s season if his teammates had not voted the already-announced starting QB to the captaincy. Just imagine how awkward that role will be for Johnson now, as he seems unlikely to start another game for the ‘Cats.

If you want to see what it looks like when a starting QB commands the respect of his teammates, look at Andrew Marty, who Fitzgerald said after the game received “a ton of captain votes,” after throwing his first touchdown that pulled Northwestern within three (!) scores late in the first half, shown below:

Unfortunately, we are unable to see the sidelines on this camera shot, but as someone who was in Durham for the game, I can tell you that the rest of the Wildcats were just as fired up as Marty appears to be in the video.

If you do not believe me, just ask fifth-year captain Chris Bergin who said after the game that “Marty is a hell of a football player, a hell of a leader” and that “we expected nothing less from him. No drop-off when he came into the game.” Bergin added that “we hope we get him back as soon as possible.”

So after Marty went down, how come NU did not go back to Johnson?

When asked about it, Fitz raved about Marty’s performance and simply said that once he got hurt, “we went to Ryan next.” Fitz is too seasoned of a coach and a professional to throw Johnson under the bus after the game. However, he did say that Hilinski “got a limited amount of reps in the game plan. It’s hard to get one QB ready, let alone three.”

If Fitz really trusted Johnson, he would have reinserted him in the game over a QB that received the third-string reps in practice and had not played meaningful snaps in a game since tearing his meniscus in 2019.

So what does this mean going forward?

Well, we are in a situation that encapsulates the one in 2019. Without Marty, Northwestern likely does not possess a starting Big Ten-quality QB on its roster. NU’s receivers are very good, but the point is moot without anyone able to competently throw the ball to them.

The 2021 defense may be able to force turnovers more efficiently than the 2019 unit, but the group two years ago allowed far fewer chunk plays than this year’s team has thus far.

NU has picked up the ugly non-conference win over an FCS opponent (UNLV would be the Indiana State comparison, in the case of the 2019 team, despite its status as an FBS program), started off the Big Ten season by being blown out at home by Michigan State and, in just two weeks, must travel to Lincoln, Nebraska where just like in 2019, Fitz will again have to decide whether or not to start Hunter Johnson.

Here’s to hoping that Hilinski or any of the other signal callers waiting in the wings are better than Aidan Smith.