After an offseason that turned the Northwestern football program upside-down, the team had a chance to wash away some of the summer negativity with a strong performance on the road. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Pat Fitzgerald was not on the sideline for the first time in 17 seasons, the on-field product looked all too similar to last year’s disappointing campaign. With the chance to move to 1-0 and pick up a crucial conference win early in the season, the Wildcats fell flat, losing 24-7 to Rutgers. Here are five things we learned in the season opener:
The defensive line has to step up
It didn’t take long for Northwestern fans to muffle any optimism they may have held headed into the season, as on the opening drive the Scarlet Knights marched down the field on a 16-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a touchdown. The second drive was no better as Rutgers put together another long drive, this one totaling 80 yards en route to another trip to the end zone. By the end of the first quarter, Rutgers led the time of possession battle with a comical 13:34 to 1:26 advantage, not to mention the 14-0 lead on the scoreboard.
The root of these struggles was a lack of penetration up front. While I won’t point all of the blame for Northwestern’s inability to get off the field at the defensive line (the Scarlet Knights converted seven third and fourth downs on those first two drives alone), throughout the afternoon, Rutgers was able to control the clock and the game flow by imposing physicality on the ground. When Gavin Wimsatt dropped back to pass, the line failed to generate pressure, even on designed blitzes. Ultimately, the Wildcats did not record a sack even though the run defense stiffened in the later stage of the game.
The other side of the trenches must improve as well
Unlike Northwestern’s zero-sack performance, the Rutgers front was able to get to the quarterback early and often. Rutgers recorded five sacks on the afternoon and several more QB hits and hurries. Although this group of offensive linemen is a new combination for the Wildcats, the unit struggled in both the running and passing facets of the offense. Non-quarterbacks managed just 14 yards on 10 designed carries, although to be fair, Northwestern conceding two early scores put the team in a hole that allowed Rutgers pass rushers to tee off in expected pass situations.
Regardless, the departures of both starting tackles from a season ago, including All-American Peter Skoronski, was felt almost immediately. There were communication errors that led to free rushers and quarterback Ben Bryant was consistently forced to speed up his progressions, leading to some untimely errors. Things must get better, and fast, or the results may be dire. Later in the night after the game ended, I watched “Zodiac,” a truly unnerving movie that scared me to my core. Thinking about this offensive line facing off against Chop Robinson and Penn State in a few weeks is even scarier.
We saw a concerted effort to get the ball into the hands of transfer playmakers
Eighteen of the 39 available targets on Sunday afternoon were funneled to two wide receivers: transfers Cam Johnson (10 targets) and A.J. Henning (eight targets, plus two rush attempts and punt return duties). The two pass-catchers, coming from Arizona State and Michigan, respectively, were a bright spot for the team. Johnson finished with four receptions for 45 yards but looked sharp coming in and out of his breaks, and I thought he played far bigger than his 6-foot-even frame. Henning finished the day with four catches for 42 yards and his world-class speed looked as advertised.
For a receiver room that did not see any options accumulate 700 yards last season, there is reason for excitement. Both seniors should continue to see a large portion of work in the passing game, although I expect more work for the tight ends in future weeks, as well as the addition of Bryce Kirtz, who did not play Sunday.
While we’re shouting out some individual players who flashed on Sunday, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention both Garnett Hollis Jr. and Devin Turner, who both showed signs of stellar play in the secondary.
Whichever quarterback is under center will have a short leash
As most assumed, Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant was named the starter for the opener, and Bryant’s debut in purple was up-and-down, ultimately ending on a sour note. Bryant finished the day 20-for-35 for 169 yards and two interceptions. The offensive line did Bryant no favors, but with a goose egg on the board, the starter was yanked late in the game in favor of Brendan Sullivan, who led the team on a short drive ending with a touchdown to avoid the shutout.
Before the score in the closing seconds of the game, things were looking ugly. The only causes for smiling in the second half ahead of the Caleb Komolafe touchdown were a very cute picture CBS showed of David Braun’s newborn daughter Blake (congrats to the Braun family!) and a riveting promo for a new season of Survivor (90-minute episodes!). Sullivan’s touchdown added one more item to that list and made a compelling case that he should trot out with the starting offense on Saturday against UTEP.
Bryant had some nice throws in his action, including an opening-drive dot down the field to Henning and a bullet over the middle of the field to Johnson that zipped right past the Scarlet Knight linebacker. The two interceptions, however, were poor decisions and momentum killers. Sullivan offers more mobility and playmaking, but regardless of who is at the helm, Sunday proved that the QB competition was not limited to the offseason, and could linger throughout the year depending on who has a hot hand.
Braun and Bajakian were aggressive in the pursuit of big plays
Even setting aside the fake punt in the second quarter, which has already led to discourse on whether it was a good decision with bad execution or a poor decision that was executed nearly well enough to work, we saw a different type of aggression on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats took several shots down the field, but were just 2-for-9 on passes that traveled 15 or more air yards.
What is even more surprising was the frequency of passing we witnessed for a team whose identity has traditionally been rooted in running the football. On first down, I counted 20 called passing plays to a mere four run designs, a truly shocking discrepancy for a team who was willing to run the ball eight or nine straight plays a season ago. Personally, I like this style of aggressiveness, and it suggests an analytics-forward approach from the gameplanners and playcallers. The process is correct, even if the results were not there, so even if the run/pass rate inches closer to 50/50 (which it should), it would be disappointing if Bajakian got cold feet and returned to a predictable run-run-pass play sequence we saw throughout 2022.