On Friday night, for the first time in 650 days, Ryan Field was open for business. With over 34,000 fans in the stands, the marching band finally returning to the field and plenty of demonstrations from Northwestern athletics, it was almost too easy to get swept up in the moment: life, almost as normal as before the COVID-19 pandemic, was back in full swing, in a perfect night.
Well, almost perfect. Northwestern football (0-1, 0-1 B1G) couldn’t put the icing on the cake Friday night, dropping their first game of the season 38-21 to Michigan State (1-0, 1-0 B1G) in a matchup that led to more questions than answers. While the ’Cats looked solid in some respects – including a fantastic performance from senior quarterback Hunter Johnson, who had previously raised concerns – Northwestern could not hold Michigan State defensively, allowing 38 points and 511 total yards of offense.
“First and foremost, credit Michigan State. They were able to win the line of scrimmage, that's the bottom line,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said postgame. “They were able to get explosive runs, and we missed tackles early, missed gaps, and those guys were able to take it the distance. I think at times we did respond, and we shored some things up, but obviously not consistently enough.”
The top performer of the night was Michigan State junior running back Kenneth Walker III, who went off for the Spartans in his first performance for the team, rushing for 264 yards and netting four of the team’s five touchdowns. The Spartans also saw a decent debut from sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne, who quietly threw for 185 yards and scored a touchdown of his own in the victory.
Meanwhile, Hunter Johnson shined for the ’Cats in his first start since 2019, throwing three touchdowns and tallying up 275 yards in the losing effort. Johnson, who had raised questions about his abilities in 2019 after posting just one touchdown and four interceptions, was lights out in his 2021 debut, throwing fantastic passes and orchestrating some great drives, including a late march that included Johnson going 11-for-11 with a touchdown to boot.
Helping Johnson out were sophomore wideout Bryce Kirtz, who led the 'Cats with seven catches and 80 receiving yards, and senior receiver Stephon Robinson Jr., who finished his first game with the 'Cats with 79 yards, five catches and a touchdown.
“It's been a long time coming, for this first game,” Johnson said postgame. “We've been preparing really hard this offseason, and we just tried to go out and execute the offense, and I thought [the] guys did a great job. There [were] just a few plays here and there, a miscommunication or whatever ... it was definitely a very promising first game. I thought we did a lot of things really well.”
Despite Johnson’s fantastic performance, the game was never close for Northwestern, as Michigan State opened the scoring early and never looked back. On the very first play from scrimmage, Walker took a handoff and immediately escaped the defense, taking the ball 75 yards to score the game’s first touchdown just thirteen seconds in.
Despite the early blow, the ’Cats refused to go down without a fight and quickly put together a drive of their own, getting into scoring position early. However, they failed to convert on points when senior kicker Charlie Kuhbander missed a 44-yard field goal, keeping the ’Cats down 7-0 early. Michigan State would not miss on the opportunity, marching right back down the field and setting up Walker for his second touchdown of the night.
Following the outburst, the Spartans and ’Cats locked horns defensively, trading punts and drives left and right. Michigan State added a third touchdown early in the second quarter, putting the Spartans up 21-0, but Northwestern’s offense never seemed to quit. They finally knocked down the barrier in the final seconds of the second quarter, scoring their first touchdown and cutting the lead down to 21-7.
The ’Cats, knowing their window of opportunity was closing, quickly opened the second half with a moving drive, and were once again in the realm of scoring before being shut down in the red zone. Unfortunately for the ’Cats, Kuhbander once again sent the kick wide of the uprights, and in an almost déjà vu, Michigan State marched right back down and set up Walker for a third touchdown, clinching the game for the Spartans. While the ’Cats did score two late touchdowns, Michigan State spent the rest of the game in neutral, coasting to a 38-21 win.
What went wrong for the ’Cats? Simply put, in the return to a fan-packed Ryan Field, the nerves might have run too high. Kuhbander’s two misses effectively removed the ’Cats from keeping the game close, and the defense’s early misses – including an opening blunder that allowed a 75-yard touchdown – doomed the team from the start. The thousands of eyes on the players may have led to those issues.
“I don't want to discredit Michigan State's effort, but obviously, we made a lot of mistakes,” Fitzgerald said. “We've got to execute better in the kick game. Those six points, that's a big difference at the end of the game and probably a difference in momentum a little bit. We just have self-inflicted wounds, either a penalty or a blown assignment or just a missed target thing, so we’ve got to look at all of it and make sure we’ve got our plan showed up.”
Of course, this isn’t to say these will be permanent issues for the ’Cats. For a team that returned just 34% of its Big Ten West-winning production, a slow start to the season – especially against a Division I team, rather than an expected Week 1 tuneup – is easy to excuse and understand, especially as the team picked up steam in the closing minutes. With a new defensive scheme to learn, new players taking leadership roles and an overall new team dynamic, this was likely just a hiccup for the young ’Cats, who will likely realize their full potential in the coming weeks.
After all, Ryan Field has five more “normal” games in store this year. We’ll see how the team responds.