Football: Northwestern’s quarterback struggles continue against Iowa


Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern

Aidan Smith looks for a receiver. The junior quarterback threw for 138 yards and an interception on Saturday.

Andrew Golden, Sports Editor


No Northwestern player was under more scrutiny during the previous four seasons than Clayton Thorson, despite finishing his career as the winningest quarterback in the program’s history.

Now, as the Wildcats sit at 1-6 in their first season without Thorson, NU fans are learning the hard way that consistent quarterback play is hard to come by.

“Man, he’s a pretty good player, huh?” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “The most underappreciated player in Wildcat football…the haters hated that guy too, didn’t they?”

If the “haters” really did hate the play of Thorson, who knows what they are saying about the Cats’ current quarterback situation.

After splitting reps with senior quarterback T.J. Green against Stanford, opening-day starter Hunter Johnson got the job due to Green’s season-ending injury. Despite “winning the job,” Johnson’s inconsistencies, along with injuries picked up against Wisconsin, forced the Cats to turn to junior quarterback Aidan Smith.

Johnson is now back healthy, but the coaching staff has stuck with Smith to lead the team.

Smith’s day started off about as poorly as NU would have imagined. On a third and five deep in the Cats territory on their first possession, Smith’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted.

While that was the only interception that Smith threw Saturday, NU struggled to move the ball and Smith’s play was a major reason why. Throughout the game, the junior from Fort Wayne, Indiana didn’t throw to open targets, made errant passes and often opted to scramble when the pocket began to collapse on him.

After the contest, Fitzgerald said the quarterbacks are struggling to make the proper reads and, at times, holding onto the ball longer than they should. Looking back on the game tape, there will definitely be some plays, reads and throws that Smith will probably want back.

“When we take a look at the tape, there will be some pretty disappointed quarterback room guys,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ll look at some opportunities that they left on the field.”

Earlier in the season against Michigan State and Johnson struggling to move the offense down the field, Fitzgerald decided to toss Smith into the fire and see if he could turn the Cats fortunes around. While it was too late to mount a comeback, that game, as well as injuries, springboarded Smith into the starting quarterback position.

But despite being in a similar predicament Saturday, Fitzgerald opted to leave Smith in the entirety of the contest instead of giving Johnson a shot in the second half. Ultimately, Fitzgerald said it was his decision to stick with Smith, and would not go into details about why Johnson never saw the field.

Regardless of who plays, NU has to figure out how to correct the mistakes of its struggling offense and it starts under center.

Thorson had his struggles too, especially his freshman year when he threw nine interceptions and just seven touchdowns. Yet the Cats still won 10 games that season.

With No. 18 at the helm, NU always had a knack for winning the games it needed the most — but now, someone else in the quarterback room needs to fill that void.

“Quarterbacks need to lead to win and make the plays that winners make,” Fitzgerald said. “They gotta take care of the ball, they gotta put the ball in the right spots.”

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