Noah Frick-Alofs/Daily Senior Staffer
STANFORD, Calif. — With 10:38 remaining in the first quarter, Northwestern’s contingent of fans erupted in cheers at the sight of Hunter Johnson on the field.
It was a loud roar nine months in the making. From the moment Clayton Thorson stepped off the field for the final time as a Wildcat, it was expected that the redshirt sophomore transfer would take the reigns at the quarterback.
Despite the lofty expectations, it wasn’t confirmed that Johnson would be the starter until right before kickoff when NU’s football account tweeted a video of his highlights at 12:58 p.m. — one minute before Fitz had promised the fans.
While Johnson played the first series of the game, both he and TJ Green took snaps under center and Johnson put together one of the worst performances by a quarterback in recent memory: 6-for-17, 55 yards, zero touchdowns and three turnovers. He looked lost on offense while Green, who Johnson’s been competing with all offseason, was in control from the moment he stepped on the field in the second quarter.
In two series, Green was 6-for-10 with 62 yards passing and moved Northwestern into Stanford territory on both possessions, before he fumbled the ball and got injured on the first drive of the second half.
Because of Green’s injury, Johnson essentially played the whole game, but that wasn’t the team’s plan. Green was a temporary placeholder, but not the long-term plan.
Hindsight is 20/20 but regardless of Johnson’s struggles and Green’s success, the Clemson transfer should have played the entire game.
Based on Saturday’s performance, that statement doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the Cats’ future starts and ends with No. 15.
There have been reports all offseason that Johnson struggled to grasp the offensive scheme, while Green’s experience gave him the edge when it came to understanding the playbook — something offensive coordinator Mick McCall emphasized as crucially important. On Saturday, it seemed like NU had a limited playbook for Johnson, a series of runs and short throws, while Green had access to the full array of plays and looked the part.
The way Johnson played Saturday, it makes me wonder if Johnson would’ve been better off with all of the first team reps so he could understand the offense even more. Postgame, Johnson said the differences in play calling was just a result of the flow of the offense, but it certainly didn’t seem like it.
Whether the offense was changed or not, if Johnson is expected to be the quarterback that the Cats want him to be for the next three seasons, NU should have let him go through the growing pains of adjusting to the new offense without switching him out or changing the playbook.
Look at it like this: If a teacher has a set of information that they want a student to learn, they teach it to the student and the best way to see if the student grasps the information is to test them on it.
The same applies to playing Hunter Johnson. Mick McCall and the staff taught the offense to him and they should’ve thrown him into the fire for the whole game. What good does it do to let someone with loads of potential sit on the bench and not practice what they learned?
Every year, NU sets goals. Last year, it was to win the Big Ten West and this year, to win the Big Ten. The Cats could be headed down the right road to get back to Indianapolis.
Johnson should’ve been leading the Cats down that road, thrown into the driver’s seat, with Fitzgerald and McCall knowing there would be bumps in the road like today. But now that they are being forced to give Johnson the keys, this will bode well for the Cats as they reach high in hopes of leaving Indianapolis with a Big Ten Championship someday — even as ugly as today was.
Andrew Golden is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to email@example.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.