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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern gets back to .500 in offensive eruption, upsets Maryland 33-27

Northwestern definitely gave Maryland’s defense a fright on Halloween weekend.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern has found its offense again.

Coming off of a nine-point showing on the road, the Wildcats (4-4, 2-3 B1G) found their form again in Ryan Field in its 33-27 defeat of Maryland (5-3, 2-3 B1G). Northwestern totaled 368 yards on offense and scored on seven drives, which included six forays into the Maryland red zone.

Brendan Sullivan played the game of his life, going 16-for-23 for a total of 265 yards and two touchdowns. He also led the team with 56 yards on the ground. For Maryland, Taulia Tagovailoa was splendid in defeat, throwing for 274 yards and a trifecta of touchdowns, but threw a backbreaking interception with under two minutes to go to end the game.

UMD received the opening kick, and after a 26-yard return by Braeden Wisloski to set Maryland up in good field position at its own 34, the Terrapins offense went to work quickly. Tagovailoa completed his first two passes for 14 yards before wide receiver Kaden Prather took an end-around for 36 yards to set Maryland up in the red zone. Two plays later, Tagovailoa found Tai Felton in the end zone for an eight-yard score. The drive had covered 66 yards in just five plays.

On, the ensuing drive. Coco Azema had a nice return of his own to set the Wildcats up just outside their own 25, and the Northwestern offense also got to work quickly. Mike Bajakian also dialed up an end-around, this one to AJ Henning, and Henning took it for 11 yards and a first down. Unfortunately for Northwestern, the Maryland defensive line flexed its muscle, and sacked Sullivan twice on the ensuing series to force Hunter Renner to punt.

However, Sullivan wouldn't have to wait long to get the ball back. An aggressive blitz from the Wildcats pressured Tagovailoa, and he ended up losing the ball. Bryce Gallagher cleaned up the mess himself, setting up Northwestern inside the Maryland 15 with a great chance to tie up the game.

It was a chance the Wildcats wouldn't squander. Sullivan scrambled for 10 yards, nearly taking the entire Maryland defense into the end zone with him before being dragged down at the one-yard line. Cam Porter would finish the job from there, diving into the end zone to knot the score up at 7-7 just over six minutes into the game.

Due to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the extra point, Northwestern kicked off from its own 20. Wisloski ripped off another big return, rumbling for 34 yards into Northwestern territory to give his offense prime field position. Maryland played conservatively, getting to a third-and-one at Northwestern’s 36. Tagovailoa was able to convert the first down after scrambling on a rollout, but then badly underthrew a wide-open Felton on a flea-flicker that probably could have gone for six. He would make up for it three plays later, finding Roman Hemby on a beautifully designed screen pass that broke 24 yards for Tagovailoa’s second passing touchdown of the game.

Northwestern’s next drive started with a pair of short runs, but the Wildcats were able to moe across midfield after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Maryland linebacker Fa’Najae Gotay. The Wildcats would get into the red zone after back-to-back completions to Bryce Kirtz, and Kirtz would finish the drive off with a beautifully run post route from 23 yards out. Sullivan’s first passing touchdown of the day was perfectly placed and tied the game at 14 with just under three minutes to play in the opening frame.

Maryland would again start near midfield after an unnecessary roughness penalty on, of all people, kicker Henry Helms. The Terrapins were unable to take advantage of the prime position thanks to Northwestern’s run defense holding firm, and a third-down Tagovailoa throwaway forced a punt that wound up being downed at the Northwestern 3.

The Wildcats would move out of the shadow of their own goalposts quickly after Sullivan found a wide-open Marshall Lang on a crossing route for a gain of 23 yards. The offensive efficiency continued into the second quarter, partially thanks to a late hit on Maryland that pushed the ball inside the Terrapins’ 40. The next play saw Thomas Gordon rumble for 18 yards to put the Wildcats in the red zone for the third time in 16 minutes of game action.

Porter pushed forward for 10 yards to set the ball up at the four but fumbled two plays later. Luckily, Northwestern was able to fall on the ball, and Porter redeemed himself by catching a shovel pass from Sullivan and taking it into the end zone to give Northwestern the lead with three minutes gone by in the second quarter.

Maryland was nearly forced to punt again, but Tagovailoa escaped pressure on third down and found Prather, who made a spectacular catch over Ore Adeyi to pick up 24 yards and move Maryland to midfield. Three straight Roman Hemby touches picked up 23 yards to set up Maryland on the fringes of the red zone, and a great receiver screen to Jeshaun Jones gave the Terrapins a first and goal. Tagovalioa got the offense to the doorstep on a scramble, but on third down he couldn’t find the end zone on a tush push-style play. Maryland’s offense stayed on the field, but Tagovailoa’s pass for Rico Walker was tipped by Xander Mueller and fell harmlessly to the turf.

Northwestern once again had to start a drive inside its own 5-yard line, and this time the ball was mere inches from the goal line. Sullivan was pushed forward for two yards on the opening play, but a false start sent the Wildcats backward. The ‘Cats were able to get a first down on the next play, though, thanks to Cam Johnson slipping tackles on a short pass and pushing forward for 12 yards. Sullivan scrambled for another first down, and after two consecutive screens to Henning, ran for another first down that moved the Wildcats to the 45-yard line with just over two minutes left in the half. On the next set of downs, the ‘Cats’ QB dropped an absolute dime to Johnson, who found the sweet spot in the defense, and the connection resulted in a gain of 34.

After a pair of Anthony Tyus runs and a Sullivan incompletion, Jack Olsen came on and nailed a 34-yard field goal, and Northwestern expanded its lead 24-14 with just over a minute left in the first half.

Maryland was able to quickly dissect the defense on the ensuing drive. After a screen was broken up on the opening play, Tagovailoa completed three consecutive passes for a total of 60 yards to set Maryland up at the Northwestern 16. After that, he threw two straight incompletions, setting up a third down with 18 seconds to play. The result of the play was another incompletion, and Maryland was forced to settle for three as well. Jack Howes’ attempt from 34 yards away was true, but Northwestern went into halftime with a 24-17 lead.

In the second half, Northwestern picked up where it left off. Coco Azema broke a kickoff return for 61 yards, setting up Northwestern in prime territory. Short gains set up a 47-yard field goal attempt for Olsen, which he buried with ease to push the lead back to 10.

Maryland quickly responded, with Colby McDonald erupting for a gain of 19 on the opening play to reach Northwestern territory; however, the drive stalled out, and Maryland had to punt for the second time in the game. Northwestern would punt the ball right back after a physically taxing series for Sullivan, and Maryland started its next drive in plus territory.

On third down, Tagovailoa kept the ball himself for a gain of 10 to move the chains, and Azema had to leave the field to enter the medical tent. Without Azema, the secondary was vulnerable, and a Tagovailoa pass to the end zone was dropped by an open Jones.

Three straight runs set up a third down, and after a completion short of the sticks, Xander Mueller was flagged for a late hit to set Maryland up at the six. He would make up for it by stonewalling Tagovailoa on the ensuing third down, and Maryland once again was forced to settle for a field goal, which Howes converted to cut the lead to 27-20.

On the ensuing drive, Sullivan was sacked on second down and picked up just five yards on third down, forcing a second consecutive Wildcat punt. After 236 yards in the first half, Northwestern had totaled just three yards on its first three drives of the second half.

Maryland continued to find occasional success moving the ball. Screen passes to Jones and Octavian Smith Jr. picked up first downs, and a run by McDonald got the Terrapins to midfield as the third quarter ended. After that, though, it was all backward for Maryland as a failed screen pass and a massive sack by Reggie Person set up a fourth-and-22.

Northwestern’s next drive started at its own 32 after an interference penalty on the punt. Joseph Himon II took his first catch of the game for 14 yards, and two plays later Sullivan scrambled for 18 yards to put the Wildcats back in Maryland territory. A holding penalty seemingly stymied the drive, but Sullivan found Henning for a gain of 34 on a busted play to set up first and goal. Henning laid out to secure the ball in one of the most athletic plays of the game, but his efforts didn’t result in a touchdown after the next three plays gained just two yards. Olsen’s kick was once again true, and Northwestern extended the lead to 30-20 with under 10 minutes remaining in the game.

On the second play of the next drive, Tagovailoa found Jones inside the Northwestern 40, but illegally: Jones had committed offensive pass interference, which set up a third-and-23. With the Terrapins in desperation mode, Tagovailoa went deep for Prather, but couldn’t fit the ball through the coverage of Ore Adeyi and overthrew both. Maryland had to punt yet again, its third punt in four second-half drives.

Northwestern would make them regret it. Sullivan found Himon on a beautifully set up screen pass, and Simon shook half the Maryland defense before finally being run out of bounds inside the 10 after a 53-yard pickup. After two fruitless runs, Sullivan seemingly found Henning in the end zone for the clinching touchdown, but the officials ruled the pass was incomplete. The call was correct, as the ball did hit the turf, despite protests and boos from the Northwestern faithful. Olsen continued his perfect day, converting his fourth field goal from 29 yards out to push the lead to 33-20.

Maryland wouldn’t go away without a fight. After starting on their own 39 after a squib kick, the Terps quickly marched down the field behind Tagovailoa and his receivers. He completed four passes for a total of 47 yards, including an 18-yard strike to Jones to slice the deficit in half. The Northwestern lead was cut to 33-27, and because the Maryland drive took just 80 seconds off the clock, there were still almost four minutes to play.

Two runs for Northwestern resulted in two Maryland timeouts, and the ensuing third down would be snapped with 3:32 left on the game clock. Sullivan got outside the pocket, but couldn’t escape defensive lineman Tre Colbert, who sacked him for a loss. While Maryland was forced to use its final timeout, Tagovailoa and company got the ball back with 3:16 to play, and just 59 yards between them and the end zone.

That journey would get slightly longer after Tagovailoa was sacked on first down, the sixth time Northwestern’s pass rush got to him. A 12 yard completion set up third and three, and Roman Hemby plunged forward for five yards to move into Northwestern territory. Two more Tagovailoa passes moved the ball to the 31, but his next pass was blown up for no gain with under two minutes left. Tagovailoa moved quickly, but a wide-open Felton couldn’t hold on to the ball, resulting in another third down. Once again, Tagovailoa failed to convert, this time to devastating effect. His overthrow was intercepted by Coco Azema (who went to the locker room due to injury concerns earlier in the half), and the turnover with less than 90 seconds to go sealed Maryland’s fate.

A lengthy review affirmed the call, much to the delight of the sideline and black-clad fans in the stands. Two kneeldowns later, Northwestern had clinched its second conference victory of the year and moved back to .500 on the year. The Wildcats will look to reach a winning record next Saturday when they take on Iowa at Wrigley Field.