Football: Hunter Johnson returns to action, gets injured again in loss to Indiana


Noah Frick-Alofs/Daily Senior Staffer

Coach Pat Fitzgerald yells after Hunter Johnson was injured in the third quarter. Johnson did not return to the game.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Web Editor


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In what has become a nightmare season for Northwestern, the scariest moment yet came in the third quarter of the Wildcats’ sixth straight loss, a 34-3 beatdown by Indiana.

Sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson, in his first action since Sept. 28 at Wisconsin, had just made one of his better plays of the night, a seven-yard completion to junior receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for a first down. But the next play might be remembered as one of the lowest points in a season full of them for NU (1-7, 0-6 Big Ten).

Hoosiers defensive lineman Allen Stallings IV came free on a blitz and forced Johnson to try and escape the pocket. But Stallings met Johnson and dragged him backward several yards before throwing him down hard to the Memorial Stadium turf.

Johnson was injured on the play — on which no penalty was called — and did not return.

“I didn’t really see anything until the replay because I was blocking my guy,” senior center Jared Thomas said. “I know Hunter was back there fighting for his life to get some things going.”

Johnson relieved junior Aidan Smith early in the second quarter, and despite an uneven performance for the remainder of the first half, Johnson returned for the second half to try to cut into a 21-point deficit.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said it was the plan to have Johnson play in the first half, but his returning for the start of the second half was a decision made in the moment.

“We made a decision at halftime that (keeping Johnson in) was the direction we were going to go,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He unfortunately got dinged up on that play, and Aidan came back in.”

The decision to reinsert Johnson into the quarterback rotation came at an interesting time. Smith had completed all three of his passes in the first quarter and led the Cats on a lengthy drive that spanned the first two periods and ended in NU’s only points of the game on a 25-yard field goal by junior kicker Charlie Kuhbander.

That possession came after Smith found a hole and ran for 22 yards on the Cats’ first offensive play of the game, but the run went down the drain when he fumbled the ball away.

Johnson’s first drive of the game was his best. His first pass was a five-yard completion to junior receiver Kyric McGowan, and his second went to fellow junior receiver Riley Lees for a first down. Johnson made a more impressive throw later in the possession to Lees for another first down, but NU stalled at midfield and was forced to punt.

When the Cats got the ball back — after another Hoosiers touchdown that put them down 24-3 — Johnson threw three straight incomplete passes to give it right back up. He ended the day 7 of 17 passing for 65 yards.

Smith returned to the game after Johnson’s injury but was not as sharp as he was in the first quarter, completing just two of nine passes the rest of the way. Sophomore Andrew Marty even came in late in the fourth quarter for mop up duty.

NU has gotten very little production out of any of its quarterbacks through eight games — they’ve completed a collective 47 percent of their passes with just two touchdowns and 11 interceptions. With Johnson’s status uncertain yet again, it’s hard to imagine the situation getting much better as the season enters its final weeks.

“We obviously have to play better at that position, so we’re trying to give both guys the amount of reps they need to try to get into a groove,” Fitzgerald said. “I hope (Johnson) had fun. He came here to play and he’s been battling through a lot, and he probably had fun until the play when he got hit. He’s a great young man, and there’s a bright future ahead for him.”

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