Northwestern returned from its bye week with its back against the wall and a 1-5 record. As a 14.5-point underdog, few experts predicted that they would perform well, let alone be competitive. Behind a stringent defensive effort and the arm of sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan, the Wildcats put up the most fight in a span of 60 minutes since they traveled across the pond in August. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough, and a lengthy second-half stall allowed the Terps to pull ahead. Here are the good things and the bad from the ‘Cats' 31-24 loss to Maryland in College Park.
After head coach Pat Fitzgerald made the decision to bench Ryan Hilinski ahead of today’s matchup, the Wildcats looked to a new signal caller, sophomore Brendan Sullivan, to take the reigns. With Maryland playing for a bowl spot, Sullivan looked poised and polished, using his mobility and relatively accurate arm to keep the ‘Cats afloat. He was able to score the game’s opening touchdown himself and accumulated 143 yards passing on 18 completions. Despite two interceptions, Sullivan was the catalyst in making the Wildcat offense look competent once again. He has also been able to balance the offensive game plan with the play of running back Evan Hull, who caught four of Sullivan’s balls for 31 yards and a touchdown himself.
The run game
Since Week Zero, Northwestern’s rushing attack has been largely futile and inefficient despite boasting Evan Hull and Cam Porter. Saturday proved to be a step in the right direction, with Hull eclipsing the 100-yard mark early in the third quarter. With the addition of a mobile quarterback into the mix, the ‘Cats’ run game looked much more diverse and efficient than in weeks past. Collectively, NU posted 46 carries for 215 yards, good for 4.7 yards per carry. Andrew Clair even pitched in five carries for 27 yards and a score. A wonderful performance all around on the ground in College Park.
Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller have very much come into their own in the last few weeks, using their standout showings in Happy Valley as bedrocks. The two consistently enforced the line of scrimmage, combining for 26 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, making numerous stops at the second level.
Honorable mentions: Malik Washington, getting pressure, starting fast
It goes without saying, but it still needs to be stated: penalties are a make or break in almost every football game, regardless of level. For the Wildcats, it piled up. Nearly 66 yards of penalty yardage on eight penalties saw Northwestern, despite one step forward, take two steps back. You can never have enough drives, especially in a critical game on the road, and this is an area where Northwestern needs to continue to improve as the season rounds out the home stretch.
Not making big plays offensively when it matters most
In the fourth quarter, Northwestern struggled to find its footing given chances to keep the game close. Early in the final frame, NU faced a fourth and short, trailing by a touchdown. Stopped short of the line to gain, it gave Maryland plus-territory field position up 24-17 and a lot of room to work with — though thankfully the Terps came out empty-handed on the ensuing drive. Closing out games has been incredibly challenging for this team — the touchback against Duke, the lost fumble against Miami (OH), and the blown coverage that led to a Southern Illinois win are three examples that have defined the low points of the Wildcats’ season thus far.
On top of having a difficult season, the Wildcats are continuing to go through an injury bug. The Wildcats lost guard Josh Priebe on the second play from scrimmage for the offense, a key vocal point of the offensive line, which almost directly resulted in a sacked Sullivan on the next play. The team also suffered injuries to tight end Thomas Gordon, who eventually returned, and lost Devin O’Rourke as well, an actor of the defensive line and critical piece of senior leadership. O’Rourke’s absence was certainly felt in the second half, where Maryland’s rushing game thrived.
Honorable mentions: Second-half play, lackluster run defense