Football: Offense sputters as Northwestern falls to Stanford in opener


Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

AJ Hampton gets juked by Michael Wilson. He had four total tackles.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Summer Managing Editor


STANFORD, Calif. — At 12:58 p.m. on Saturday, Northwestern made a long-awaited announcement — the highly-touted sophomore transfer from Clemson, Hunter Johnson, would be the Wildcats’ starting quarterback.

But instead of leading NU to victory in his first collegiate start, Johnson sputtered, completing just six of 17 passes and throwing two interceptions as the Cats (0-1) fell to Stanford (1-0) in an ugly season opener, 17-7.

“He looked like a freshman quarterback in his first start,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He did everything in his power to get himself ready to play. He’s got to be a lot better. We’ve got to continue to help him.”

As it has done time and time again over the past two-plus seasons, the Cats’ defense kept the game within reach. But NU could not come up with much offense, with dropped passes hurting both Johnson and senior quarterback TJ Green.

After the Cardinal put together a long scoring drive late in the first half to take a 7-0 lead, the Cats gave Green a chance to lead the offense for the first time. And for the first time in the contest, NU began to move the ball. Green converted two first downs through the air and another on the ground to put the Cats in Stanford territory. But the drive stalled and ended in a turnover on downs.

The Cardinal took advantage. Junior defensive lineman Earnest Brown IV was penalized for a late hit on Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello, who left the game following the controversial hit with an injury. The penalty yardage gave the Cardinal a field goal opportunity, and Jet Toner hit from 51 yards out to make it 10-0 at halftime.

NU was outgained 215-79 in the first half and held the ball for just seven of the opening 30 minutes.

“We missed a few critical tackles that resulted in explosive plays,” junior linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “We just need to play smart and not let the emotions of the game get ahold of us.”

Green came back out to start the second half and led another promising drive, which included a key screen pass to junior running back Jesse Brown and a couple of nice runs by sophomore running back Isaiah Bowser.

But with NU at the Stanford 5, Green appeared to have Brown open in the end zone, but hesitated and danced away from pressure before twisting his ankle going to the ground. The Cardinal recovered Green’s fumble, and Green was lost indefinitely with a foot injury. Fitzgerald said after the game the injury requires surgery.

Senior receiver Bennett Skowronek, Green’s cousin, was emotional about the injury after the game.

“I called him right after I found out,” Skowronek said. “We were in tears. I know how hard he worked to get to where he was.”

Johnson was forced to play the rest of the game and had a few good moments, especially on the possession following his second interception of the game. He ran for three first downs on the Cats’ only scoring drive of the game midway through the fourth, including one on fourth down.

Senior running back John Moten IV capped the possession with a one-yard run to the end zone, and suddenly NU trailed by only three.

“I’m comfortable running the football,” Johnson said.

The Cardinal threatened on their next drive, but the Cats’ defense produced a second turnover, with senior defensive lineman Joe Gaziano recovering a fumble after a muffed handoff. NU stalled around midfield, however, and was forced to punt, not getting the ball back until there were just 30 seconds remaining.

On the very first play, Johnson lost the ball upon being sacked, and Stanford’s Jordan Fox recovered in the end zone for a game-sealing touchdown.

“Obviously disappointing from a standpoint of the way we executed offensively, especially early,” Fitzgerald said. “At the end of the day, we just have to be a lot more disciplined. Really disappointing loss, credit coach (David) Shaw and his young men, they made the plays that needed to be made to win the game.”

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