Coming off their bye week, the ‘Cats showed a pulse, but came up short once again to the Terps. Traveling on the road to a play a program whose trajectory is the exact opposite direction than the ‘Cats, Northwestern’s 31-24 loss was far less lopsided than expected. However, for a team that hasn’t won a football game since before Labor Day, Saturday was far from a positive.
Northwestern showed life at quarterback
Brendan Sullivan performed as well as you could’ve hoped in his first collegiate start, completing 18-of-24 passes for 143 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. His 67.1 QBR was higher than any other start for Hilinski outside of Nebraska, and provided a spark with his legs that made the offense much more dynamic. Although College Park is far from the most hostile Big Ten arena, Sullivan looked confident, as he led the ‘Cats down the field to tie the game at 24 late in the fourth quarter. It’s one game, but the quarterback play for the ‘Cats on Saturday was definitely a positive, which is something Northwestern fans haven’t been able to say too often lately.
The ‘Cats knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop it
Although Taulia Tagovailoa’s absence was not confirmed until right before kickoff, Billy Edwards Jr.’s start meant right away that Terps were going to heavily rely on the run. Maryland running back Roman Hemby had 24 carries, and Edwards Jr. kept the ball 16 times of his own, resulting in the Terps run-to-pass ratio being almost two to one. Despite this, Northwestern’s run defense was in shambles, giving up 257 yards on the ground, headlined by Hemby’s 75 yard fourth quarter touchdown that was a mere 12 seconds after the ‘Cats tied it up. It’s one thing to get dominated up front by a team like Michigan or Ohio State, but when it’s by a team that’s relied primarily on passing production thus far, it’s not a great look for the ‘Cats.
Evan Hull continues to be Him
In a conference filled with the star studded running back names of Blake Corum, Mohamed Ibrahim and Braleon Allen, among others, Evan Hull is often neglected due to Northwestern’s awful performance over the past two years. That being said, Hull put together his third 100+ yard rushing performance against Maryland, while also contributing in the passing game. This put Hull over 900 all-purpose yards on the season, as he seemed to make the most out of every sliver of room he had. Although Hull might get a few less carries, Sullivan’s mobility should open up more opportunities and holes for him, which have been few and far between for the junior this season.
Fans are hopeless
According to ESPN’s win probability, for a brief moment to begin the second half on Saturday the ‘Cats were projected to win, with their probability of victory being 51.1%. Now the validity of these projections is definitely questionable, but that’s not really the point. The point is that the ‘Cats were up seven with the ball against a good football team, and I don’t think I saw a single Northwestern fan believed for a second that they would win that game.
Maybe those I watch football with, and those I follow on the Twittersphere are overly cynical, but as a native of Michigan it seemed scarily similar to the Detroit Lions paradox: fans seemingly get more upset when the team plays well, because they know it’ll make the team’s inevitable loss that much more painful. Now, comparing the Lions to a team that was in Indy less than two years ago is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but the fact is that the fan base seems even more dejected than a year ago, with most fans tuning out and the few that watch expecting misery.
Northwestern’s schedule doesn’t get easier
Northwestern’s five remaining games are all either on the road or against ranked opponents, so it could somehow get even uglier. The ‘Cats are on the road again this weekend, as they’ll face a Spencer Petras-led Iowa team that has looked almost as bad as NU as of late. However, after its game in Iowa City on Halloweekend, Northwestern will likely be projected to lose by 20+ in all of its remaining games. This of course means there’s theoretically a chance that Northwestern could pull off a transformative win, but more than likely means a lot of uncompetitive football and lopsided scores (who thought it’d be a good idea for Ohio State to be on Parents Weekend??). Still, with a home game against Illinois on the schedule and four other games against solid-to-elite competition, Fitzgerald should be able to get his team motivated to play spoiler in the coming weeks.