Northwestern opened up the post-Pat Fitzgerald era in Piscataway against Rutgers on Sunday afternoon, and though the team wanted to change the script from last year’s 1-11 season, it didn’t start of well, falling 24-7 to the Scarlet Knights. Even with the resounding loss, there were a few positives; but it will be out-shaded by countless negatives as Northwestern tries to dig itself out of the basement of college football.
The Michigan transfer was one of the most notable players to come into the program this past offseason, and expectations were that he would immediately slide in as the team’s top wide receiver. He backed it up on the first drive, reeling in a 26-yard pass from Ben Bryant while being hit by two Rutgers defenders. While he only got minimal touches the rest of the half, Henning provided Northwestern with a glimpse of how meaningful he can be for this offense. His first target of the second half was another deep ball that Bryant slightly overthrew, but the wide receiver was open. He finished the game with four receptions for 42 yards on eight targets, and it is clear Henning will be used in multiple ways throughout the season.
Whether it was Garnett Hollis, Theran Johnson, Rod Heard II, Coco Azema or Devin Turner, the Northwestern secondary was a bright spot on defense. After letting up a passing touchdown on the opening drive, they performed well in Piscataway, holding Gavin Wimsatt to 163 yards passing. A lot of the time, the secondary was let out to dry, as Northwestern pass rushers failed to get to Rutgers’ quarterback Gavin Wimsatt. The potential is there; for a unit that lost Cam Mitchell, A.J. Hampton and Jeremiah Lewis during the offseason, the new starters had some good moments in the opener. If they are able to stay healthy and continue to develop, the secondary will yet again be a strength.
After earning All-Big Ten accolades last season and tallying over 100 tackles, Gallagher backed these recognitions up against Rutgers, finishing with 19 total tackles, setting a new career high. The Northwestern defense was on and off today, but Gallagher was all over the place. Similar to last season, he should be the Wildcats’ leading tackler and one of its best players yet again.
Honorable Mentions: Cam Johnson, the rush defense, Rutgers’ gameday experience, press box hot dogs
Northwestern’s defense on third and fourth downs
The X-factor early on in the game was the defense’s inability to get off the field on numerous third and fourth downs. While the ‘Cats were able to stop the Scarlet Knights early on, Rutgers had three fourth down conversions on their first drive, resulting in a touchdown from Gavin Wimsatt to Ian Strong. On the second drive, Wimsatt added a rushing touchdown. If Northwestern was able to make plays on late downs, it could have been a different ballgame early on. But, Rutgers kept the Northwestern offense off the field with a total of 32 plays in their first two drives. The defense had a few good series, but the late down conversions killed them throughout the game.
The offensive line
Going into the year, it was obvious Northwestern was going to have a new offensive line, and in its first showing, it did not perform well. Specifically in pass protection, the Wildcats failed to give Ben Bryant time to throw; Bryant was sacked five times and one of his interceptions resulted from a botched snap and poor protection along with the veteran trying to make a play. Northwestern was able to move the ball at times but could not convert, and Rutgers was able to get to Bryant many times in key situations. Rushing-wise, Northwestern had 22 carries for 12 yards — and Brendan Sullivan contributed 11 of those in the last three minutes. Nobody could get it going on the ground, and a lot of that is because of the line allowing Rutgers defenders to meet Northwestern rushers in the backfield.
Mike Bajakian’s gameplan
Northwestern has an offense with new names, but Mike Bajakian did not help them on Sunday. The distribution between runs and passes was way too lopsided, with Northwestern having less than 20 designed run plays, and there were many pass designs where receivers were easily blanketed and Bryant could not find them. Bajakian was almost a casualty at the end of last season for Northwestern, who had the Big Ten’s worst offense, and today, the offense was not any better, even with the new names.
Honorable Mentions: Cam Porter, PA name pronunciation, Ben Bryant (tentatively), “Northeastern” instead of Northwestern on the Rutgers’ scoreboard