The Northwestern Wildcats (1-0) showed up big on Saturday, better than anyone could have expected. Maybe you’re a hopeless optimist, and you had already erased last season’s disappointments from your memory, or maybe you bleed purple no matter what the pregame odds might be. Either way, the biggest Northwestern fan couldn’t have predicted the blowout the ‘Cats accomplished Saturday evening, dominating the Maryland Terrapins (0-1) 43-3.
Throwing an impressive 23 completions for 30 attempts, fifth-year transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey controlled the field for the ‘Cats starting from his very first play on Northwestern soil. After the offensive struggle the Wildcats faced last year, Northwestern’s new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and Ramsey seem to promise fans a fresh start. Bajakian’s leadership combined with Northwestern’s strong rushing earned the ‘Cats five touchdowns and 43 points. It was a level of offensive dominance Northwestern has not seen against a Big Ten opponent since a win against Purdue in 2018.
“I thought [Ramsey] played really clean,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “I thought he made really good decisions with the ball, I thought he looked very poised. For a young man that's been in our program now for months… to see that his teammates elected him a captain I think speaks to his leadership and speaks to who he is so really proud of his performance today. I thought the way he spread the ball around was outstanding and a great game called by Mike Bajakian.”
Key injuries on Northwestern’s defense left fans wondering whether the ‘Cats would be able to hold off Maryland’s new transfer quarterback heading into the game. Taulia Tagovailoa, brother to NFL rookie and fifth overall pick Tua Tagovailoa, struggled in his first game with the Terrapins throwing for only 94 yards. Reading right through the rookie’s attempts, Northwestern’s defense forced four turnovers, an unheard-of accomplishment with last year’s team.
Some unexpected young talent from the Wildcats included freshman safety Brandon Joseph and freshman cornerback Rod Heard, who led the team with seven and six tackles respectively. Allowing only three points, Northwestern’s show on defense should ease any worries fans might have been holding on to knowing who they lost in last year’s graduating class.
“It's a great job by a young man being prepared,” Fitzgerald said on the defensive play. “I was really proud of the way that the entire secondary stepped up, they've got great leadership. J.R. [Pace] was elected captain for a reason, and he's done a great job leading that group, and a lot of plays being made all over the field today. Really, really fun to watch.”
In an unanticipated shining moment, senior kicker Charlie Kuhbander stood out to earn the ‘Cats 13 points as well. Going a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals, Kuhbander was able to convert two of those attempts at over 40 yards. Kuhbander’s consistency won him Big Ten’s Special Teams player of the week on Monday, the second time in his career.
Northwestern’s first victory also brought the 100th win for Coach Fitzgerald. A Northwestern alum and coach since 2006, Fitzgerald’s accomplishment is shared with only one other current coach in the conference: next weekend’s opponent Iowa’s Head Coach Kirk Ferentz. Although he now sits as one of the most successful coaches in conference history, Fitzgerald refused to accept sole responsibility:
“It's an honor, it's humbling,” Fitzgerald said of the accomplishment. “It’s about our players, it's about our staff, families, you know, so many people have contributed to this … I'm just so proud of those guys, and I'm honored to be their coach. And to all those who played here, I'm sorry it took so long to get to 100; to our fans, I'm sorry. But hopefully the next hundred will go a lot faster.”
The ‘Cats exceeded expectations in their first week and should feel confident heading into next weekend’s matchup against Iowa (0-1), an away game at Kirkland Stadium. Riding high with a newly powerful offense and a deeper defensive core than previously mentioned, the ‘Cats hope to send a message in their first divisional game: last season was a fluke.