The “tune-up” game: one of the best traditions in college football. As best described by Adam Sandler in “The Longest Yard,” it’s when a top-tier program – those playing in the top conferences in the NCAA – takes on a lower-skilled team from Division II early in the season and destroys them, allowing the top program to gain confidence in their game strategy and in the players’ skills.
While Northwestern (1-1, 0-1 B1G) may have viewed Indiana State (1-1, 1-0 MVC) as a tune-up game, the match may have created more warning signs for the team, as they quietly walked into a 24-6 win over the Sycamores. Despite winning by three scores and earning their first win of the season, the ’Cats were unable to run up the score – as many sports analysts expected them to – and found themselves with more issues to solve as they continue.
“When you look at where you're at, as a Big Ten team against an FCS team, you’ve got to be able to pound the ball,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said postgame. “When we targeted things right and executed, I thought we did a good job. It's the self-inflicted wounds that we’ve got to look at, and get it corrected and get better at that.”
After losing starting running back Cam Porter in preseason camp and being held to just 117 rushing yards in the season opener, the Wildcats’ offense seemed to emphasize the running game in this match with 209 yards. Sophomore back Evan Hull ran wild with 126 yards and two touchdowns, while first-year Anthony Tyus III also enjoyed a solid day, racking up 71 yards.
Unfortunately, senior quarterback Hunter Johnson seemed to take a step back in his second appearance of the season. After throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns against Michigan State, Johnson seemed limited against the Sycamores, going 9-for-16 with just 66 yards and one touchdown. Decision-making seemed to be an issue, as he gave up two turnovers: a fumble and an interception.
To the Wildcats’ credit, they did seem unstoppable at first, opening the scoring with a 75-yard drive. With Hull taking the ball on a majority of the plays, the ’Cats stomped down the field and went up 7-0 early, following a touchdown from the man himself.
“I think just getting back to what we do fundamentally is where we needed to be better, as far as the details and just knowing our assignment,” Hull said postgame. “We just kind of lost momentum for a bit there, but we got it back, and we were able to finish strong.”
While Indiana State pushed back with a drive of their own, the ’Cats got the ball back, and Hull and Tyus once again carried the bulk of the offense, marching the ball down the field. In a break from the norm, however, Johnson finally took the ball for himself and fired a deep 25-yard touchdown to junior receiver Malik Washington – his first of the season – and the ’Cats looked to be ready to run up the score.
Sadly for the ’Cats, the offense seemed to dry up after those outbursts. They finished the first half with three punts and almost no momentum gained. On the only drive that had any traction, Johnson botched a handoff and the ball fell to the ground, ending in an Indiana State turnover. With nothing going for the ’Cats, they headed to the locker room up just 14-0.
Hoping to get some momentum going, the ’Cats entered All-American safety Brandon Joseph into a punt-returning role, and he didn’t disappoint, helping setting a new program record for punt return yards in a single game with 166.
"I did it back in high school,” Joseph said postgame. "I had a few punt returns my senior year … We realized it's gonna be a new role losing Riley [Lees] last year, so someone's gonna have to step up … I was ready to get my opportunity when Bryce Kirtz went down."
Despite Joseph’s efforts, the ’Cats couldn't capitalize on the excellent field position, apart from a 47-yard field goal from Charlie Kuhbander – tied for his career long. The Wildcats’ offense continued to stall, including being stopped on downs, a punt and an interception from Johnson that had Wildcat fans scratching their heads.
“For the most part, our plan was pretty good, but our execution was not, offensively,” Fitzgerald said postgame. “We’ve got to correct those things and get those fixed, especially after explosive punt returns. To come away with only three points was disappointing, and it changed the complexion of the game, so we've got to look at some of those things.”
The defense showed no quit however, with graduate linebacker Chris Bergin leading the team in tackles with eight and junior defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore recording 1.5 sacks in the winning effort. The squad refused to give up yardage until the ’Cats were safely leading 24-0 – having acquired another score on an Evan Hull-buoyed drive – and the team held on in the final moments, cruising to a 24-6 win.
“I just think from a communication standpoint, execution and a little bit better tackling, I thought that was a byproduct of what we did today, but we still have a long way to go,” Fitzgerald said. “We have a lot of coaching to do. This is a young squad that just needs to start, continue to grow up … each experience, get smarter and wiser and more experienced. We just got to accelerate some of that.”
Simply put, the game seemed to be a case of “two steps forward, one step back.” While the running game seemed to wake up and get some serious reps in, and the defense held their own against a confusing Indiana State offensive scheme, Johnson’s miscues in the pocket are hard to gloss over. The ’Cats will likely make that their point of work this week, as they prepare for another interconference matchup against Duke (1-1, 0-0 ACC) this Saturday.
Perhaps by then the team will be fully in tune.