The Northwestern band performs before the home opener. Photo by Jacob Munoz / North By Northwestern

Fans who worried about another Wildcat loss to a Group-of-5 team can breathe a sigh of relief.

With the help of a strong ground game and impressive special team play, Northwestern (1-1) defeated UNLV (1-2) 30-14 in Saturday’s home opener for a necessary victory on the way to conference play. The Wildcats’ win over the Running Rebels came two weeks after a deflating loss to Stanford and could be a much-needed confidence lift, though there were some roadblocks along the way.

Northwestern got off to a fast start in the first quarter, as a 75-yard opening drive ended with a 1-yard rushing touchdown by quarterback Hunter Johnson (11 rush, 55 yards, 1 TD). It was the redshirt sophomore’s first rushing TD of his career.

But UNLV quickly evened up the score with a 65-yard run by running back Charles Williams (16 rush, 144 yards), which warned the ’Cats of the offensive threat the Rebels posed. Quarterback Armani Rogers (14 rush, 57 yards) also utilized his feet during the game.

The Rebels’ early drives were especially dangerous. Williams had another rushing touchdown early in the second quarter, going 37 yards down the sideline. A forced fumble by the Wildcat defense, initiated by junior safety Travis Whillock (7 tackles, 1 fumble recovery) and scooped up by senior defensive lineman Joe Gaziano (9 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 fumble recovery), had prevented a UNLV scoring opportunity the previous drive.

Following junior kicker Charlie Kuhbander’s 33-yard field goal, Williams’ second touchdown had put the Rebels up 14-10 over Northwestern. It would be the visitors’ last score of the game, however, and Kuhbander (3/3 FG, 3/3 XP) kicked two more field goals to give the ’Cats a 16-14 lead into halftime.

The Wildcats’ defense looked like a much different team when they arrived back onto the field. They forced more short drives and pressured UNLV’s defensive line, getting five sacks on Rogers (16/26, 120 yards, 1 INT) in the process. In the third quarter junior linebacker Paddy Fisher (7 tackles, 1 INT) and Whillock came up with an interception and fumble recovery, respectively, to add to the Rebels’ misery.

“We made a couple of mental mistakes in the first half,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said, acknowledging the staff’s responsibility. “To our guys credit, I thought they really settled down and were really good at halftime.”

Northwestern had sustained success on offense by running the ball, with redshirt first-year running back Drake Anderson (26 rush, 141 yards, 1 TD), junior running back Jesse Brown (9 rush, 79 yards) and Johnson all playing a big role on the ground. Though Johnson’s passing game (12/25, 165 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) looked rough at times, including an ill-advised first-quarter interception into the end zone, he did have some good moments on long throws.

Johnson notched his first passing touchdown as a Wildcat on a 50-yard connection to sophomore receiver JJ Jefferson (2 rec, 61 yards) in the third quarter, extending Northwestern’s lead to nine points. Five of his 12 completions went for 15 or more yards.

“We had a few more [long throws] out there that we had some chances on,” Johnson said. “We were close on a few, and those plays are big plays that can really make a change in the game.”

The ’Cats punctuated their victory when Anderson earned his first career touchdown late in the fourth. He broke free from a Rebel defender and crossed the end zone for a 7-yard score.

The Drake Effect

Brown started as running back for Northwestern after sophomore starter Isaiah Bowser was ruled out due to injury, and had himself an impressive first half. However, Brown was taken out of the game before halftime, and Fitzgerald later revealed that he suffered a lower-body injury. With Brown out, Drake Anderson took over most of the running duties and had a solid outing.

“It felt good to finally be out there again," Anderson said. "[Student coach] Jeremy Larkin is always telling me at practice, “Prepare like the number one [running back].”

In a strange coincidence, Anderson had a day that mirrored one of his father Damien’s Wildcat football performances in 2001. Both father and son faced UNLV in September, and both rushed for over 100 yards in a win, with Drake’s 141 yards surpassing Damien’s 113.

A Special Day

Charlie Kuhbander had a game to remember, successfully making all three of his field goals from distances of 30, 33 and 40 yards. It was the third time he made three field goals in a game, and the first since 2017. He had missed his sole attempt from 38 yards against Stanford, and went 2-for-6 from distances of 30 yards and more in 2018.

Another bright spot from the special teams unit came through punting. In the third quarter grad player Daniel Kubiuk kicked a 39-yard punt that was downed at UNLV’s 1-yard line. From there, the Rebels would have four plays for 27 yards before being forced to punt at their own 28-yard line.

Game stats and details provided by SIDEARM Sports