The eternal question asked is whether Northwestern’s season could be worse than its offseason. Apparently, it can.
In its season opener, Northwestern (0-1, 0-1 B1G) was no match for Rutgers (1-0, 1-0 B1G), falling 24-7 in its first game with David Braun as the head coach. Nothing went well for the Wildcats, as the Scarlet Knights possessed the ball for almost 40 minutes.
For Greg Schiano’s team, Gavin Wimsatt completed 17 of his 29 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. On the ground, Kyle Monangai led a balanced rushing attack with 49 yards and a score on 14 carries. Isaiah Washington led the Scarlet Knights’ receiving core with 36 yards on four catches.
Rutgers’ defense played even better, racking up five sacks in its shutout victory. Deion Jennings led the team with nine tackles.
In his first start as a Wildcat, Ben Bryant went 20-for-35, passing for 169 yards and throwing two interceptions. Transfers A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson led the air attack, combining for eight catches and 87 yards. The running game was nonexistent, with Brendan Sullivan leading the team in rushing, despite only playing the last two minutes of the game. On the defensive side, Bryce Gallagher led the ‘Cats with 19 tackles, a career-high.
The ‘Cats won the toss and deferred, booting it off to the Scarlet Knights to start the 2023 season. NU forced a third down, but Monangai was able to pick up a fresh set of down on an inside run. The Wildcats had the Scarlet Knights in a third-and-long, but a completion just short of the sticks and another inside run put RU into Northwestern territory. On its third set of downs, Rutgers once again picked up a fourth-down conversion, as the ‘Cats could not get off the field. The Scarlet Knights capped off the 16-play drive on a beautiful toe tap in the back of the endzone by Ian Strong to go ahead 7-0.
After the kickoff, Northwestern’s new offense appeared to find its grove. Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant found former Michigan wide receiver A.J. Henning for 26 yards to put the ‘Cats inside RU territory. However, the Wildcats could not capitalize on the chunk play, having three straight incompletions and being forced to punt.
RU’s offense continued to move the ball against the Wildcats’ defense. The Scarlet Knights picked up 19 yards, finding the soft spot in Cover 2, to get the ball out to midfield. Rutgers converted another fourth down and Wimsatt sailed his pass over his initial target, but Strong came back and made a diving catch for another fresh set of downs. It was all Rutgers at the end of the first frame, leading 7-0.
The Scarlet Knights continued to have their way with the Wildcats, converting another third-and-long before Wimsatt barreled into the endzone to extend Rutgers’ lead to 14-0. It was RU’s second drive of the game, and its second 16-play drive.
When Northwestern’s offense saw the field again, it was short lived. After NU picked up an initial first down, the Wildcats were forced to punt again; however, Jeff Genyk reached into his bag of tricks and dialed up a fake punt. Hunter Renner completed the pass to Rod Heard II, but he was marked just short of the line to gain, turning the ball back over to Rutgers inside NU territory.
Rutgers moved into the red zone after a questionable defensive pass interference call on Garnett Hollis Jr. gifted the Scarlet Knights a free 15 yards. However, NU’s defense was finally able to get off the field and hold RU to three, pushing the ‘Cats’ deficit to three scores.
Bryant settled in on his third drive, finding Cam Johnson on a strike across the middle for a fresh set of downs. After a false start sent NU backward, Bryant found Jacob Gill to recoup the yards lost, and kept it himself to pick up the first down. That put the Wildcats inside Rutgers territory. However, the ‘Cats’ drive stalled, and Bryant’s fourth-down pass to Henning fell short, giving the ball back to the Scarlet Knights.
After a three-and-out for Rutgers, Northwestern tried to run a two-minute drill. Spoiler alert: it went poorly. Cam Porter could not pick up the first down in a short-yardage situation, and a botched snap forced Bryant to throw up a prayer as he was walloped, landing the ball into the waiting arms of Max Melton for the easy interception. Rutgers was unable to capitalize on the turnover, with Jai Patel‘s 38-yard field goal bouncing off the upright. That kept holding Rutgers’ lead at 17-0 going into the half time locker room.
Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense dominated time of possession in the first half, staying on the field for over 24 minutes. Additionally, Rutgers converted eight of 11 third and fourth down opportunities, while the ‘Cats went just 1-for-7 in those situations.
Out of the locker room, Northwestern’s offense did nothing in its opening possession, going three and out. Rutgers did not do anything either, sending a punt right back to NU. After another Northwestern punt, Rutgers drove deep into ‘Cats territory, aided by a 20-yard catch and run by Monangai, who punched it in to push the Rutgers lead to 24-0.
Northwestern went three-and-out again, including a near-interception by Bryant. On its next offensive possession, Bryant picked up 15 yards with his leg but tossed an interception on a fade to Johnson. The ensuing drive, a holding penalty set the Wildcats behind the sticks, and a big hit jarred a deep ball out of Johnson’s hands.
In pure garbage time, Northwestern’s offense started to move the ball, completing a strike to Johnson and multiple passes to Henning. However, two sacks, including a strip sack, sent the punting unit out again. In one of the lone bright spots for NU, the Wildcats recovered a muffed punt.
With the clock nearly zero, Sullivan and multiple second-teamers took the final snaps. The second-team offense worked the ball into the red zone, for the first time in the game, and finally found the endzone with 20 seconds remaining when Sullivan connected with Caleb Komolafe for the touchdown. It was long over by the time he reached paydirt, as Rutgers cruised to a 24-7 victory.
NU will be back in action next Saturday, taking on UTEP at Ryan Field at 2:30 p.m. CT.