Perhaps no better statement could describe the 2021 Northwestern Wildcats (1-2, 0-1 B1G) than “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” While the ’Cats have shown flashes of brilliance this year, the team can’t seem to put a full performance together just yet, as they either start games extremely sluggish or can’t stay consistent throughout the match.
Case in point: the ’Cats notched their second loss of the season Saturday afternoon, losing 30-23 to Duke (2-1, 0-0 ACC) in a performance that raised plenty of concern from fans and coaches alike. The Blue Devils opened the game with 27 unanswered points, including 21 in the first quarter alone, and despite Northwestern’s best efforts to replicate Cardiac ’Cats of old, the team could not finish the job.
“Credit to our players … I think a lesser character group of guys, with the way we played in the first half, probably would have quit, but that's not who the Wildcats are,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said postgame. “I'm incredibly disappointed right now, I'm not gonna lie to you, I thought we would come down here and play a lot cleaner than we did earlier.”
Duke was led in their effort by graduate quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, who tossed for 314 yards and notched one touchdown in the victory, and senior running back Mataeo Durant – the ACC’s leading rusher – who picked up 102 yards and two touchdowns.
On the other side, it was senior quarterback Andrew Marty who garnered the most attention from Northwestern fans. Marty, whose last meaningful snaps came in the tail end of the 2019 season, entered the game with the team down 27-0. He led the ’Cats to three quick touchdowns – closing the deficit to just 30-20 with 10:21 left in the third quarter – before exiting the game with an undisclosed upper body injury.
“Marty's a hell of a football player, a hell of a leader,” Northwestern graduate linebacker Chris Bergin said postgame. “We expected nothing less from him and no drop off when he came into the game. So we didn't flinch, we didn't blink, and we hope we can get him back as soon as possible.”
Marty entered the game in relief of senior quarterback Hunter Johnson, who made his third start of the season following two less-than-ideal performances against Michigan State and Indiana State. Johnson struggled early, coughing up a fumble and throwing three interceptions in just two quarters of play, and was replaced for Marty following his fourth turnover of the day.
Sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who transferred to Northwestern this past offseason, saw time under center following Marty’s injury, but failed to make any noise, going just 2-for-7.
As mentioned, the offense started incredibly sluggish under Johnson, recording two three-and-outs on their first two drives. As the offense stalled, the defense also seemed unprepared, as the Blue Devils seemed to sprint down the field with two quick touchdown drives. Both possessions – each with less than six plays and gaining more than 60 yards – were capped by a Mataeo Durant touchdown.
Despite the initial deficit, the ’Cats refused to bow out early and quickly put together a powerful drive of their own, setting up shop on the opponent’s goal line with a chance to cut the lead. Unfortunately, the pocket crumbled around Johnson, who lost control of the ball after being pressured.
It was a blow to Johnson’s confidence, as he threw three interceptions following the fumble, including a few that seemed to fly directly into the opponents’ hands.
Down 27-0 and needing a miracle, Marty entered the game trying to stop the bleeding, and he immediately shifted the offense back into good standing, leading a 75-yard touchdown drive in just under a minute, capped off by a deep bomb to first-year receiver Jacob Gill to keep the ’Cats in the game. At the end of the first half, Duke led 30-7.
“Obviously, we put ourselves in a hole from the turnovers offensively. They kept our defense out in the field for way too long,” Fitzgerald said. “I've got to find a way, with this group, to get them to be more consistent. So ultimately, it starts and ends with me.”
Despite the deficit, the ’Cats came out of the second half hungry. Marty and the offense scored a quick touchdown on the team’s first drive of the half, and the defense stepped up with a forced fumble near Duke’s end zone. After Marty pushed the ball across the goal, the ’Cats were down just 30-20 with 25 minutes to play.
“I was really proud of the way the guys responded,” Fitzgerald said. “At halftime, they were really positive, they were upbeat, and they went out and fought their tails off in the second half. But again, too many opportunities squandered … You put yourself in that big of a hole, it makes every play execution that much more important, and the Blue Devils did a better job than we did today.”
Unfortunately, that’s where the magic stopped for Northwestern, as the offense stalled out on downs on the next two drives. With the clock ticking in the fourth quarter, Marty finally seemed to break through the Blue Devil defense, and was looking for one more touchdown when he was tackled and stripped from behind, injuring him in the process. Marty’s day – and in effect, the Wildcats’ chances of winning – was over.
“I would say when you look at some of the mistakes that we made in some of the areas defensively, it's the exact same plays that we practice, which is really frustrating to me,” Fitzgerald said. “I want some frickin' answers, because we should be the defense we played in the second half, not the crap we put on the field in the first half, or what we put on in the Michigan State game. So, [the] staff and the defensive players need to look themselves in the mirror and get this stuff figured out fast, because it's not rocket science.”
While it’s easy to write this one off as the ’Cats waking up on the wrong side of the bed, there are a lot of positives for Northwestern. While the defense gave up 21 first quarter points and 30 in the first half, the team did lock down in the second half, giving the offense a chance to push pace. What’s more, Andrew Marty looked like a bonafide stud with the offense, leading one to wonder what may have happened if he started to begin the season. While no information has been released regarding Marty’s injury-status, he seems optimistic for the rest of the season.
“I'm not very pleased right now, if you can't tell,” Fitzgerald said. “We're gonna stick together, we're gonna fight through this thing, because we cannot continue. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
This game may have been the worst of times, but perhaps that means the best is ahead of us. Only time will tell.