Football: The adversity facing Hunter Johnson


Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Hunter Johnson falls to the turf. The sophomore quarterback has struggled so far this season.

Charlie Goldsmith, Reporter

As bad as it looked, there was actually a Big Ten quarterback who had it worse than Hunter Johnson last week.

Michigan’s Shea Patterson is a two-year starter who received an All-Big Ten selection in 2018. In a top-15 matchup last Saturday at Wisconsin, Patterson was pulled at halftime following a first half that featured plenty of hits and even more incompletions.

Now that same Badgers defense — which has allowed only 14 points in 2019 — gets a shot at Johnson.

Northwestern’s sophomore transfer has struggled all season and was taken out late in the third quarter against Michigan State on Saturday. Johnson threw for 88 yards on 26 attempts and added an interception in the Wildcats 31-10 loss, and after the game, coach Pat Fitzgerald went up directly to Johnson in the locker room and told him he needed to execute better.

“We talked about certain things we needed to clean up,” Fitzgerald said. “We talked about the first 10 minutes of the third quarter being critical, and we got our rear ends handed to us. And it started with the way we played offensively.”

NU’s offense has only scored 17 points in its two games against Power Five opponents this season, and Johnson has struggled to separate himself from the other quarterbacks on the team. Despite high expectations as a former five-star recruit, Johnson has thrown one touchdown and four interceptions through three games.

After a three-and-out in the third quarter against the Spartans, Fitzgerald subbed Johnson out to give junior Aidan Smith his second collegiate game at quarterback. Johnson is still listed as the starting quarterback and is expected to start the rest of the season, but Fitzgerald said Johnson has a lot of room to improve.

“If we don’t execute, we have to have competition,” Fitzgerald said. “(Johnson) knows he’s got to be better, and he’s the first guy to admit it. He’s learning the system, he’s learning how to be a starter, and he’s learning that all the details matter. I have a firm belief that he’s going to keep getting better.”

That will be difficult Saturday because Johnson hasn’t seen a defense like the Badgers’. Against the then-No. 11 Wolverines, Wisconsin limited Patterson to 14 completions on 32 attempts. And Patterson wasn’t the only player struggling on Michigan’s offense — the running backs averaged just 1.3 yards per carry.

Smith said he’s working with Johnson — especially on communicating play calls — to prevent what happened against Michigan State from happening again versus the Badgers.

“Any little questions about protections that I can answer or help him out with, that’s kind of where I come in,” Smith said. “We watch film together, and we’re back and forth talking to each other. We’re always competing with each other as well. It’s healthy, it’s fun. Love having him here.”

Johnson said looking back on last week’s game, he noticed several plays he thinks he should have made that he wasn’t able to convert. Fitzgerald praised Wisconsin’s physical front line and “outstanding” secondary, and he said the offense will have its “hands full” in Madison.

But Johnson said he’s not changing his approach three games into the season, even though the next defense he faces is one of the most hyped in the country.

“You’ll face adversity all the time,” Johnson said. “My whole life, I’ve been playing football, and I’ve faced a lot of adversity through football. So it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”

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