Football Notebook: NU has a number of connections with Ohio State


Daily file photo by David Lee

Hunter Johnson runs the ball. The sophomore quarterback missed the last game due to injury.

Charlie Goldsmith, Reporter

Back before Justin Fields became a highly touted prospect, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald recruited Fields to Evanston and the Wildcats offered him a scholarship in 2016.

Fields became a five-star quarterback, eventually committed to Georgia and then transferred to Ohio State after his freshman year. Now, he’s leading one of the best offenses in the country, averaging over 216 yards and 49.3 points per game.

“He’s a rockstar person,” Fitzgerald said. “We were blown away with him out of high school. Just a stud of a guy. He’s playing outstanding football and he’s taking it to the next level just being explosive with his feet and being smart with that.”

Fields has developed a reputation for his ability to escape the pocket and find receivers 30 or more yards down the field and his mobility gives the offense a different feel from when Dwayne Haskins led the group.

“Pass rush-wise (Fields) just creates an extra responsibility for us,” senior defensive end Joe Gaziano said. “We can’t get engulfed in the center or guard. And we’ve got to be physical, clog the middle and not let him escape the pocket like we know he can… We’re just trying to give the quarterback different looks so he won’t pick us apart and know where we’re going to be.”

Hunter Johnson OR Aidan Smith

For the first time all season, junior quarterback Aidan Smith was listed with sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson as the first team quarterback on the depth chart.

Johnson started the first four games of the season, but he was hurt against Wisconsin and missed the Nebraska game due to injury. Now, it’s unclear who will take the field when the Buckeyes come to Ryan Field.

“The injury for Hunter has set him back,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald added that Smith has a better command of the offense than Johnson, which is helping Smith’s case to receive more playing time.

During this summer’s preseason camp, Fitzgerald said Johnson and now-injured senior quarterback T.J. Green had separated themselves from the rest of the quarterbacks on the roster. But the offense has struggled all season, scoring an average of 14.4 points per game.

Fitzgerald said Johnson’s production on the field has been the biggest factor in reevaluating the quarterback position.

“(We) have a larger body of work,” he said. “We’re trying to have consistency, we’re trying to have the ball be moved down the field.

The connection between Ryan Day and Randy Walker

In the Ohio State coach Ryan Day’s press conference Monday, Day said when he was a quarterback at New Hampshire being coached by Chip Kelly, he would watch the Cats on tape to learn their spread offense.

“We used to watch all of the film,” Day said. “Everything that (coordinator) Kevin Wilson and coach (Randy) Walker and everybody called at Northwestern, that was the way to run the spread offense.”

Day started for three seasons at New Hampshire, setting several passing records while playing for one of the most innovative minds in college football.

In 1999 — Walker’s first year as coach — NU averaged just 12.8 points per game, making the Cats the fourth-worst scoring offenses in the country. NU finished 3-8 in 1999 but improved to 8-4 the following year.

That season, the offense scored 36.8 points per game — one of the ten best scoring averages in the country — and running back Damien Anderson rushed for over 2000 yards. Quarterback Zak Kustok led the offense with around 200 passing yards per game, and NU played Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl.

Day said that season influenced the style of offense he ran the rest of his college career.

“Chip went out and learned all the terminology,” he said. “I was like the guinea pig quarterback trying to figure it out.”

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Twitter: @2021_Charlie