Football: Aidan Smith comes up just short in his first career start


Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Aidan Smith runs the football. The junior quarterback made his first career start Saturday.

Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor


LINCOLN, Neb. — The bookends of Northwestern junior quarterback Aidan Smith’s first career start were ones he would like to forget.

To start Saturday’s game, Smith tried to make an adjustment at the line, but mismanaged the clock and wound up receiving a delay of game penalty.

On his final play — with the score tied at 10 and about a minute remaining — Smith tried to connect with junior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman on a slant route. But Chiaokhiao-Bowman was hit on his way to the ball — a play that could have been a pass interference call — and the pigskin ended up in the arms of Nebraska’s Lamar Jackson, who returned the ball into NU territory.

A minute later, Smith watched Lane McCallum’s game-winning field goal go right through the uprights on the Memorial Stadium jumbotron, sending over 89,000 fans into a frenzy.

“I felt a lot of that blame come on me for that one decision that I made,” Smith said. “Coach Fitz harped on this, there were little tiny mistakes in the game that led up to that happening. I was just trying to put that behind me and keep my head.”

Coach Pat Fitzgerald told Smith on Friday morning he would be the starter come kickoff Saturday afternoon against the Cornhuskers. Fitzgerald said that sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson was not 100 percent following last week’s game against Wisconsin, which pushed Smith into the starting role.

Smith said he felt a few butterflies, but was pretty calm due to his preparation during the week leading up to the game.

Smith ended the game 19-for-32 with 136 passing yards as well as a team-high 16 carries and 69 rushing yards. Nothing spectacular, but his final passing total was the most in NU’s four games against Big Ten competition this season.

Smith’s first half was pedestrian, but he kept mistakes to a minimum and, like he has in the previous two games he appeared, got better as the game went on. It all culminated on the first drive of the second half.

After the Wildcats defense forced a three-and-out, Smith and the NU offense took over at the Nebraska 42-yard line. The Indiana native looked as comfortable as he has all season as the Cats needed only six plays reach the endzone. Other than Smith’s two-yard touchdown run, no play resulted in a gain of less than seven yards.

He rushed the ball two other times on the possession, and illustrated a silkiness to his running he had not shown before. On one read option, he looked to be dead in his tracks, but he beat his defender to the outside and picked up seven yards.

“On that first second-half drive, we were clicking, we were clicking, we were clicking,” Smith said, snapping his fingers on each click. “We were perfect.”

But other than that possession, NU could not get much else going on offense. Smith led the Cats into field goal range twice, but junior kicker Charlie Kuhbander could only connect on one of the kicks.

The junior had a chance to be a hero on NU’s final possession, but the missed pass interference call ended any chance of that happening.

The Cats have two weeks until undefeated Ohio State — who crushed Nebraska 48-7 last week in Lincoln — visit Ryan Field. That means two weeks for Johnson to get healthy. But even if Smith gets another chance to start in two weeks or down the road, Saturday is no doubt a missed opportunity.

“I thought Aidan gave us some stuff today, Fitzgerald said. “I thought he played very hard, and I can’t blame him for that last interception.”

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