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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern battles but eventually falls to Maryland 31-24

A tale of two backups.

Courtesy of Ryan Kuttler and Northwestern Athletics.

While the fight was there, the result was not. Northwestern (1-6, 1-3 B1G) dropped its sixth contest of the year to the Taulia-less Terps (6-1, 3-3 B1G) in College Park.

The 31-24 loss did bring some positives, including an efficient first half from sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan in his first start. Sullivan went 18-for-24, throwing for 143 yards and rushing for the Wildcats’ first touchdown of the game. Evan Hull shone per usual, fostering a connection with Sullivan for 31 yards receiving and a modest 119 on the ground.

However, it was Maryland backup Billy Edwards Jr. and the Terrapin offense that came out with the win. Edwards Jr. accumulated 166 yards in the air, going 18-for-28, on top of 66 rushing yards and a passing touchdown. Redshirt freshman running back Roman Hemby tore apart Northwestern’s rushing defense, notching 166 yards and three touchdowns, and receiver Rakim Jarrett made an impact through the air with 82 yards on eight receptions and one touchdown.

Maryland received the opening kick courtesy of Adam Stage, but Edwards Jr. couldn’t take the Terps past their own 20 thanks to a gutsy tackle at the line of scrimmage by Bryce Gallagher and an incompletion. The three-and-out resulted in a punt caught by Donny Navarro on the Northwestern 44.

Then came Sullivan’s first test. The sophomore successfully avoided a three-and-out of his own, thanks to two runs from Hull and a sideline catch from Navarro. Notably, guard Josh Priebe went down on the following set of downs and was carted off with an apparent knee injury. The effects were felt immediately, as Sullivan was sacked shortly after on third down, forcing a punt from Luke Akers that landed inside Maryland’s 10-yard line.

Northwestern’s defense was prepared to respond. Despite a first down earned by Edwards Jr. on an open run up the middle, Maryland — the most penalized team in the Big Ten — earned a false start on the next snap. From there, NU’s linebacking corps stuffed the Terps’ next three attempts, earning its offense possession once again.

Sullivan showed his mobility on the next drive, running for eight yards on third down to move the ‘Cats up to their own 45. However, on the following snap, TE Marshall Lang was called for an illegal block in the back, setting his team back 10 yards. Unable to earn the first from there, the ball went right back to the Terps.

Nonetheless, the Maryland offense went three-and-out yet again after two long incompletions from Edwards Jr. deep in its own half. Northwestern received the punt at the 50, and Sullivan answered with a long throw of his own — a 46-yard completion to Washington to give NU its first real look. Andrew Clair inched the ‘Cats closer to the goal line before Sullivan ran it in himself from the one, marking his first career touchdown and the first score of the game, putting Northwestern up 7-0 with just under three minutes remaining in the quarter.

The Terps would not be shut out for long, though. Edwards Jr. led the charge all the way from his own 13, marching up the field quickly with a combination of short runs from Colby McDonald and a 28-yard completion to Corey Dyches. The second quarter commenced with UMD on Northwestern’s 39, and Edwards Jr. sustained momentum through two consecutive passes to Rakim Jarrett for a total of 25 yards before Hemby ran it in from the 14-yard line, evening the score at 7-7 with 13:43 remaining in the half.

Apparently, the scoring wouldn’t stop from either side. Hull led off the next drive with a powerful 17-yard run, and another Sullivan scramble moved the ‘Cats into Maryland’s half. The sophomore then turned to his arm, slinging two consecutive shots downfield to Washington, both of which earned defensive pass interference, moving Northwestern to UMD’s 13. Three rushing attempts from there weren’t enough to punch in a TD, but Stage managed to put one through the uprights to send NU out front by three.

Edwards Jr. and the Terrapins sputtered yet again, posting another three-and-out and setting Northwestern up for a drive from its own 17. Sullivan established a perfect mix of rushing from himself, Hull and Porter with slight help on the receiving end from Washington, Genson Hooper Price and Lang. The end result was a 10-yard receiving touchdown from Hull, extending Northwestern’s lead to 17-7 with just under five to go in the half.

On the next drive, Edwards Jr. put together what looked like it would be a touchdown march. Four complete passes and solid running from Hemby moved the Terps into the red zone before a holding called on Xander Mueller handed Edwards Jr. and company first-and-goal from the eight. Nevertheless, the Wildcat defense remained unfazed. Gallagher snuck behind the line for a sack before the secondary — despite a pass interference called on Jeremiah Lewis in the end zone — shut down three consecutive passing attempts, turning what looked like a seven-point drive into just three.

The half closed with Northwestern up 17-10, its first halftime lead since Week Zero against Nebraska in Dublin.

Sullivan opened the second half with a drive full of potential, successfully completing two passing behind two Hull runs to near the midfield mark. Then, the sophomore faltered, throwing an interception to Dante Trader Jr., who gave the Terps new life and possession at their own 46. Edwards Jr. muscled the offense down the field with help from Jarrett on two receptions to complement the running game, and Hemby rushed in an 18-yard touchdown through a slew of Wildcats to tie the game at 17.

Northwestern, unable to answer, could barely get to the halfway line from its own 25 before bringing on Akers to punt it away. Then, the Terps saw their chance to jump into the lead and took it. Edwards Jr. and Hemby moved through the ‘Cats’ rushing defense, combining for 23 yards on the back of a 10-yard holding penalty on Rod Heard II in the secondary. Edwards Jr. then completed a 30-yard pass to a wide-open Jarrett, which he easily rushed in to extend UMD’s lead to seven points with 1:07 remaining in the third.

Attempting to fight back, the ‘Cats picked up two first downs on the next drive behind Hull’s running game and quick receptions from Lang and Washington. The third set of downs, however, did not see as many holes open up for Hull, and he was stuffed three times in a row before a loss of two yards on a pass to Navarro resulted in a turnover on downs early in the fourth.

Starting with the ball on their own 47, the Terps continued to lean on Hemby and Jarrett heavily to march all the way into the red zone. Northwestern’s defense, however, stepped up big — a fumbled snap by Edwards Jr. was contained in the backfield by the ‘Cats' pass rush for a loss of eight, and then Adetomiwa Adebawore sacked the backup quarterback for a loss of 15 more on the next play, effectively knocking Maryland out of easy field goal territory. Kicker Chad Ryland attempted a 46-yard kick, but it was no good, giving Northwestern new life and a realistic chance to stay in it with 6:24 remaining.

No stranger to playing from behind, the Wildcat offense put together its most efficient drive of the game to even the score. A pass interference drawn by Navarro quickly moved the ‘Cats to their own 43; then, the receiving trio of Kirtz, Washington and Lang advanced the offense into Maryland territory. Running back Clair then had his moment, rushing for 24 yards in four attempts, finishing with a nine-yard touchdown to knot the game at 24 with 3:34 remaining.

Unfortunately, as the nickname Cardiac ‘Cats would suggest, hope in the moment was short-lived. On the first play of the next drive from their own 20, Hemby continued his monster day with a 75-yard (!!!) touchdown run — Maryland’s longest run in three years — to hand the Terps back their lead on a silver platter.

With just enough time for one final chance to even things up, Sullivan made his most costly mistake of the day — his second interception, picked up by Maryland’s Beau Brade on a pass intended for Malik Washington. Down seven with just over three minutes remaining, Edwards Jr. easily managed the clock and pulled in the yardage needed for his offense to take a knee in victory formation.

The loss marks Northwestern’s sixth straight, with its toughest slate of conference contests yet to come. The ‘Cats’ next matchup sees them facing the staunch Hawkeye defense in Iowa City at 2:30 P.M. CST next Saturday.