Following a disappointing 17-9 loss at Nebraska last week, NU needed a more encouraging performance against Maryland. The ‘Cats were able to deliver, besting one of the more high-powered offenses in the B1G and keeping their bowl hopes alive in a 33-27 win. Here’s the highs and lows from an astounding Northwestern win.
Sullivan and the NU offense opened the day with an inauspicious four-play drive, but they only went up from there. The junior QB led the ‘Cats to the end zone on three consecutive drives in the first quarter. On the second of those drives, Sullivan found Bryce Kirtz three times for 51 combined yards, the final catch being a 23-yard TD. Sullivan showed off his mobility during their final offensive possession, rushing for two first downs. He also completed one of his best balls of the season when he hit Cam Johnson on a 34-yard rainbow down the sideline.
Despite a slow start to the second half, Sullivan beat the Maryland blitz and churned out an 18-yard gain in the fourth quarter to cross into enemy territory. On the same drive, he uncorked another beautiful 34-yard pass down the middle to A.J. Henning. He hit Joseph Himon II for a 53-yard quick pass on NU’s next possession, setting up first-and-goal on a drive that would end in a Jack Olsen field goal. Sullivan finished 16-for-23 with 265 passing yards and two touchdowns in what was indisputably the best game of his career.
NU’s defense held the line on two consecutive Maryland drives in the second quarter. They forced a turnover on downs despite the Terrapins threatening to score on the 1-yard line for three plays. On Maryland’s next drive — its last before halftime — Taulia Tagovailoa completed three huge passes to reach NU’s 16-yard line in less than a minute. But the defense didn’t break, forcing three incompletions to bring up fourth down and force the Terrapins to settle for a field goal.
The ‘Cats forced another Maryland field goal in the third quarter despite getting pushed to their 3-yard line. NU scored 30 points in the red zone as opposed to Maryland’s 20, as the defense stayed tough against a Terrapins offense with the fourth-most touchdowns in the B1G entering the game.
Mueller had one of the most crucial plays of the first half, batting a Tagovailoa pass down on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter to force a turnover-on-downs. He also showed up in yet another vital moment in the second half. Mueller sacked Tagovailoa at NU’s 4-yard line to bring up fourth down and force a field goal attempt. Overall, Mueller finished with five total tackles, one sack, and a pass breakup in an impressive showing.
Honorable mentions: Coco Azema, Jack Olsen, Bryce Kirtz, Bryce Gallagher, first-quarter offense
Special teams miscues
The wind was whipping in Evanston on Saturday afternoon, which made for some short kicks and long returns as a result. Braedon Wisloski returned the opening kick to the 34-yard line, setting UMD up with decent field position to begin a five-play TD drive. NU also had some crucial penalties that worked against them. An unsportsmanlike conduct on a Northwestern extra point forced a kickoff from their 20-yard line, allowing Wisloski to return the ball beyond midfield. That excellent position also resulted in a Maryland TD to Roman Hemby.
Maryland started its drives behind the 25-yard line just twice all game, as NU’s special teams unit failed to make splash plays. Northwestern must improve its penetration on kickoff returns if they want to take pressure off the defense going forward.
The offensive line had difficulties handling Maryland’s D-line all game long. On NU’s opening drive, Sullivan was sacked on two consecutive plays as he ran out of time in the pocket. Sullivan was brought down again in the third quarter on 3rd-and-10, forcing a punt. With four minutes in the same quarter, the O-line broke down and let Sullivan go down for the fourth sack of the game.
In the run game, the ‘Cats’ line couldn’t clear many wide-open lanes, as Northwestern’s backs averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. Sullivan’s career-best performance could’ve been that much sweeter if the O-line protected him better.
Tagovailoa easily maneuvered around NU’s defensive line all game, dancing in and out of the pocket. Though the ‘Cats were credited with six sacks, most of them came from running Tagovailoa out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage. An exasperating play came in the third quarter when the Maryland QB scampered for a first down on third-and-10. It would’ve been an excellent opportunity to get the defense off the field, but they ended up giving up three on that drive. Tagovailoa looked way too comfortable escaping NU’s rush and finding his receivers for quick gains.
Honorable mentions: Halloweekend student attendance, kicking field goals from the 1-yard line