After a 41-13 home loss to No. 6 Penn State last week, Northwestern bounced back to defend its home field with a 23-20 victory over Howard. The ‘Cats started strong and took a 16-0 lead into halftime, which was just enough of a cushion to hold off a late-game surge by the Bison.
Brendan Sullivan’s legs
Northwestern started off the game with a 6-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, and Sullivan accounted for 64 total yards on that drive, with 42 of them coming on the ground. He completed his first two passes for first downs, and then scrambled for seven yards before scoring a 35-yard TD to get the ‘Cats on the board early. The next two drives were rough as Northwestern had two consecutive three-and-outs, but Sullivan’s ability to stay mobile saved Northwestern important yardage in multiple situations where the offensive line allowed pressure to get through.
During the opening drive of the second half, Sullivan used his legs to get a crucial first down on a 3rd-and-2 run. Later in that same drive, Sullivan sensed incoming pressure, pointed to Cam Johnson to take his route up the field, and as Sullivan scrambled out of the pocket, he hit Johnson in stride with a 35-yard touchdown pass that put the ‘Cats up 23-7 and acted as the final nail in the coffin. Sullivan’s scrambles accounted for a lot of the ‘Cats offense once it was all said and done.
Northwestern’s run defense
Howard tried to get its offense going on the ground, but Northwestern wasn’t having any of it. The Bison were forced to throw on their first six third downs but only converted two of them, and one of them turned into a safety as well. The run defense put Howard behind the chains, and even when Howard had an opportunity to run it on a 4th-and-2, Northwestern came up with a stop as well.
Even when Howard generated a scoring drive, Howard scored as a result of 57 passing yards on nine attempts. Northwestern’s run defense gave up just 16 yards on eight carries on that opening drive of the second half as the defensive line held strong. Howard did catch Northwestern by surprise on a 64-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter, but ignoring that one explosive play, Howard tallied 119 rushing yards on 35 carries (a low average of 3.4 yards per carry).
Porter was dealt a bad hand with how the offensive line was playing throughout the day, but he continued to get positive yardage on the ground despite some shady blocking. Porter had 12 carries for 58 yards (a healthy 4.8 yards per carry) in the first half, despite having many short caries that were blown up in the backfield for a loss or no-gain by free rushers for Howard. In the second half, Porter only got six carries as Northwestern gave more carries to Anthony Tyus III and Joseph Himon, and the game seemed already out of hand.
Honorable mentions: Rod Heard II, Special Teams, Bryce Kirtz, Xander Mueller, Cam Johnson
Several times in this game (especially early on), there were clear miscommunications between Sullivan and Porter that proved to be costly for the Wildcats. Sullivan fumbled early on as he appeared to try to pull the ball out on a read option play, and Northwestern got put behind the chains, and eventually was forced to punt. Sullivan was also sacked on a broken play where he expected Porter to be on his left side for a handoff, while Porter was actually on his right.
There were also a few other unsuccessful option plays throughout the game that were influenced by bad reads from Sullivan. Sullivan also held the ball too long on an RPO, leading to the negation of an incredible one-handed catch by Cam Johnson because the offensive line crept too far downfield. Everything seemed a bit out of sorts compared to when Ben Bryant has been under center this season.
The Offensive Line
Northwestern had the worst rushing offense in the Big Ten heading into the week in terms of yards per game. This week, the ‘Cats had an opportunity to establish the ground game against an opponent that is weak compared to the run defenses Northwestern will face in the Big Ten. The ‘Cats still struggled to win in the trenches, however, as Howard tallied three sacks and four tackles for loss in the first half alone.
Without some great individual plays by Sullivan and Porter, things would look even worse on the stat sheet for Northwestern’s line. Of course, Northwestern put points on the board comfortably, but the ‘Cats would have run up the score even more than they actually did if Sullivan had better protection, and Porter had easier holes to run through.
Honorable mentions: Mike Bajakian’s gameplan, open-field tackling, rhythm on offense, offensive penalties