It finally happened!
Two months ago, President Schapiro told the first-year students, as they learned the fight song, that their team was going to beat Michigan State. After that failed promise, expecting a win against Nebraska sounded reasonable until the team lost again on a last-second field goal. They lost in the same fashion a month later against Purdue, scoring zero touchdowns in the three-game span in between. The conversation about this team went from fighting for a bowl appearance to waiting to play UMass for the chance at a win. The wait was over on Saturday.
Although the process wasn’t pretty, Northwestern (2-8, 0-7 B1G) finally brought a victory to their fans at home for the first time in two months. Benefitting from an outstanding performance by freshman Evan Hull (24 carries, 221 yds, 4 TDs), the ‘Cats routed UMass (1-10), 45-6.
The beginning of the game was just the latest edition of the offensive horror story this football team had been producing. According to NCAA.com, UMass ranks dead-last in total defense among the 130 teams in Division I football. Expecting a huge early lead? Keep in mind: Northwestern has the fourth-worst offense in the country.
In the first quarter, they managed to make UMass’ defense look more like that of the NFL team from Massachusetts rather than a collegiate team that allows 570 total yards per game. The Wildcats started the game with a three-and-out, giving the ball to the Minutemen in less than a minute. After quickly giving up a field goal, Northwestern turned the ball over via an Aidan Smith interception. Smith promptly threw the football to his opponent again on the next drive. By the end of the first quarter, the 39.5 spread in favor of the Wildcats seemed outright silly.
The offensive struggles were at the center of the press conference. “We can’t turn the ball over like the way we are turning them over now and expect to beat Big Ten teams,” said Pat Fitzgerald.
He also didn’t hold back on expressing his disappointment with the quarterback play. “Obviously it's not been up to the standard that we expected it to be,” said Fitz. “We got to take care of the football, period. End of discussion.”
In the first 15 minutes, UMass’ offense also gained 115 total yards and reached the red zone twice. If they had any sort of red zone efficiency, the score would be much worse than 3-0.
While that first quarter was shockingly ugly for Northwestern, the good news is that there are four quarters in a football game.
The Wildcats’ comeback began as soon as the second quarter started with a blocked field goal attempt by Senior DE Joe Gaziano. The ball then fell into the hands of Chris Bergin, who sprinted 85 yards for a Northwestern touchdown.
Running back Evan Hull took the show over from there. The first time starter recorded a 6-yard touchdown to cap off a drive set up by Aidan Smith and Riley Lees.
Following his first career score, Hull decided to have a career day against the crumbling (crumbled?) UMass defense. On a 95-yard drive, Hull saw the open field twice: he first ran for 48 yards and then followed with a 38-yard rushing touchdown to give Northwestern a 21-6 lead.
By the end of the half, the freshman had 117 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. Aidan Smith recorded 45 rushing yards along with 68 passing yards, with all 6 completions going to Riley Lees. On the defensive end, despite holding UMass to only 6 points, the Wildcats gave up 148 first-half passing yards to a UMass team that averages only 164.9 passing yards per game this season.
Much of the third quarter was an extension of the last 5 minutes of the first half. Both teams traded punts as offenses failed to make adjustments. Northwestern’s offense was particularly unproductive. Lining up against the worst defensive crew in the country, they converted one first-down in the entire quarter. Two passing attempts and 12 rushes gave the Wildcats a total of 24 third-quarter yards. It wasn’t until late in the quarter that they made a field goal after a 40-yard Blake Gallagher interception return.
Then, Hull re-emerged. The freshman running back resumed the show as soon as he got on the field in the fourth quarter, finding his path along the sideline to score a 46-yard touchdown on the first play.
With junior Andrew Marty at QB in the fourth quarter, the ‘Cats completely gave up on passing the ball and relied on their running backs for their offense. Hull scored his fourth touchdown of the day off of a 31-yard run, tying the school record for rushing touchdowns in a game.
Coach Fitzgerald was happy with the breakout performance by the Minnesota native (shockingly). “I’m really proud of him and I thought he did a really, really good job today. So looking forward to the future with him about that.”
While the freshman was pleased with his four touchdowns, he credited his shining moments to the offensive linemen. “They've made my job a lot easier than it should be. So big props to them, big shout out to them...I'm just thankful that you know they have my back out there,” said Hull.
Next Saturday, the 'Cats will host Minnesota at 11 a.m. on Senior Day. Facing one of the hottest teams in the country, Northwestern is hoping to keep the momentum strong for the last home game of the year. Defensive lineman Joe Gaziano said they’re excited to protect their own turf and “execute against a very good opponent” in a “classic Big Ten West heavyweight fight.”