Well that was fun! Coming in as 14-point underdogs, Northwestern played four quarters of fashionable football to beat Big Ten foe Maryland 33-27. It is the Wildcats’ most impressive win of the season, and puts them back at the .500 mark heading into their matchup against Iowa at Wrigley Field. Here are five things we learned from Northwestern’s exhilarating victory over the Terrapins.
Brendan Sullivan can be a winning quarterback
After Sullivan’s struggles against Nebraska last week, many Northwestern fans amplified their hopes for Ben Bryant to return back to the starting role. In Lincoln, Sullivan completed just 52% of his passes, and failed to lead his squad to the end zone. The Northwestern offense was stagnant against the Cornhuskers, and with Bryant still injured (upper body), expectations were for more of the same.
Instead, Sullivan shocked the world, looking like a completely different quarterback than he did just one week prior. He was cool, calm, and most importantly, he was confident. This was evident almost immediately — Sully completed all of his first six throws, and after the ‘Cats punted on their first drive, they went on to score on all of the rest of their first half possessions. After just one half, Northwestern had already tripled its scoring total from the week prior.
There was a certain fluidity to Sullivan’s game on Saturday — something Northwestern hasn’t seen much of this year from the quarterback position. He clearly had developed a strong connection to the offense, and was comfortable enough to trust his athletic instincts. Whether flipping it out to an open Cam Porter under pressure for a touchdown or scrambling out of the pocket to pick up a first down, Sullivan looked fearless. He finished Saturday’s game with career-highs in passing yards (265), rushing yards (56) and passer rating (195.0), but most impressive was the tenacity he displayed throughout.
It is still unclear who will line up under center for Northwestern next week at the Friendly Confines. After Sullivan’s performance against Maryland, it is safe to say that David Braun can have confidence in either Sullivan or Bryant to get the job done. While both have had some moments to forget, they have both shown flashes of incredible play this season. They have both shown that they can be winning quarterbacks.
This front seven can compete
Things were looking quite glum for Northwestern right off the bat. The Terps drove down the field in a hurry, and got on the board with a touchdown less than three minutes into the game. The ‘Cats punted it back quickly thereafter, and in the early going, the game had signs of a Maryland blowout. The catalyst for changing course was the defense — specifically the men up front. On a Taulia Tagovailoa pass deep in Maryland territory, a pressure-induced fumble gave the Wildcats the field position to score their first TD of the game. It also generated key momentum for the ‘Cats — propelling them forward the rest of the way.
Until their matchup against Maryland, the front seven has been a sore spot for Northwestern. In the seven games prior to Saturday, they had averaged just 1.2 sacks per game, putting them among the bottom 20 FBS teams in that statistic. On Saturday, they exploded for six sacks — three of them coming from lineman Aidan Hubbard. They were playing with a newfound fire and a physicality that they haven’t shown all too often this year. The ‘Cats defensive front will look to continue this trend next week against Iowa, a team notorious for their gritty style of play.
The ‘Cats have some serious playmakers
Until Saturday, it felt as if Northwestern would get one notable performance from one of their playmakers each game. In the home opener against UTEP, it was Cam Porter with 90 rushing yards. Against Minnesota, Bryce Kirtz starred, going for over 200 yards. On Saturday against Maryland, it was a different story — everyone had the chance to shine. Kirtz and Porter led the way again, racking up all three of Northwestern’s touchdowns, but so many others contributed in big ways. A.J. Henning had his best game as a Wildcat, with five receptions and over 50 receiving yards. Joseph Himon II scurried across the field for 53 yards to set up Northwestern in the red zone. Coco Azema delivered in two facets: he had a huge yard kick return and provided the game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter.
With skilled players all over the field, the ‘Cats kept pressure on the Maryland defense all game. They were firing on all cylinders, repeatedly finding ways to open up the field for their athletes. The ‘Cats were in a rhythm, and it was fun to watch.
Late game execution may need some work
In a game with so many positives, Northwestern very nearly let it all slip away at the end. Up 10 points in the last minutes of the game, NU failed to score a touchdown inside the ten, and instead of taking a three-possession lead, they settled for a field goal and went up only 13 points — a deficit erasable with two touchdowns. Sure enough, the Terrapins strolled down the field for one touchdown, and nearly made it two had it not been for Azema’s heroic interception.
The Wildcats have only played one other close game while holding a lead — against Howard. In that game too, the Wildcats had many chances to put it away, to put it out of reach. They didn’t, and barely escaped with a three point win. The story was similar against Maryland. Northwestern had an opportunity to close the door much earlier on the Terps, but they instead narrowly missed blowing a sizable lead. They got away with it against Howard and Maryland, but if they want to build off of the momentum of their Maryland win, the ‘Cats will want to improve on their execution during crunch time.
David Braun can lead this team to a bowl game
Heading into Week 10, here we are, discussing the possibility of Northwestern bowl eligibility. Coming off of a one-win season, an offseason of controversy and a massive head coaching change, it is truly remarkable that the ‘Cats find themselves in this position. While we obviously must give credit to the players who made it happen, it is undeniable that David Braun deserves an abundance of praise. In his first-ever head coaching gig, he has seemingly garnered the respect of his team, and has instilled the value of “complementary football” into their veins. By the looks of it, Braun is having a blast, and it seems as if the players mirror that energy.
Before they pulled off the improbable upset of Maryland, it was much tougher to see a path for bowl eligibility. After all, they were fresh off a near-loss to an FCS school and a frustrating defeat to Nebraska on the road. Now, the record is a respectable .500, and most importantly, the ‘Cats have momentum. Coming off an impressive win, with four winnable games on the horizon, bowl eligibility feels more possible than ever for the Wildcats. And who knows — the Big Ten West is still up for grabs, and Northwestern is nowhere near being out of the race. Why not make a run for that Big Ten West Title? At least, while they still can.