Football: Northwestern’s offense puts on a show as the Cats clobber Maryland 43-3


Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer

Drake Anderson runs into the end zone. The sophomore running back rushed for 103 yards in the team’s season-opening win.

Andrew Golden, Gameday Editor


Saturday didn’t feel or look like a typical gameday.

As Northwestern players prepared for its final group drill of warm-ups, a soft cheer could be heard emanating from players’ families in the West endzone. The marching band didn’t perform their pre-game routine — a 2019 replay was shown on the Ryan Field jumbotron. When the Wildcats ran to their sideline before the game, there was no smoke or fireworks. The Star-Spangled Banner was pre-recorded.

This is Big Ten football in 2020.

Almost 11 months after NU last stepped on the football field, the Cats were back in action Saturday, but the gameday routine wasn’t the only thing that looked new — the offense was almost unrecognizable.

NU’s (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) offense fired on all cylinders as it cruised to a 43-3 home victory over Maryland in its first game with new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. It was the program’s largest margin of victory in the conference since 1970 when it beat Illinois by 48 points.

“Really proud of the overall team performance,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s an indication of the preparation getting ready for tonight… pretty darn clean in all three phrases.”

After an early field goal by Maryland, NU’s offense showed out under Bajakian with grad transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey stirring the ship.

Last season, it took the Cats nine drives to score a touchdown in their season opener against Stanford. This year, it took them just 14 plays. Five of those plays were first downs with NU capping off the drive with a touchdown run by junior running back Isaiah Bowser. After an A.J. Hampton interception on the next possession, Ramsey led the Cats down the field in five plays and finished the drive with a rushing touchdown of his own.

Just like that NU had scored on back-to-back possessions to begin the season, a feat the team only accomplished four times in 2019. By the end of the first half, the Cats led 30-3 and scored more points than they did in any Big Ten contest last year.

“It felt like a long time coming,” Ramsey said. “Once we got back that first drive and kinda started rolling, I think, more than anything, we just had fun and that’s what it’s all about.”

Bajakian has stressed the importance of getting the ball into playmakers’ hands — and that strategy was on full display under the bright lights of Ryan Field.

Grad transfer tight end John Raine led the way with five catches and seven Cats’ had at least two catches. By the end of the game, the Cats scored on eight of their 11 possessions.

While NU’s new quarterback showed the poise of a seasoned veteran, the Terrapins’ new quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa looked like what he was — a sophomore starting in his first college game. After leading Maryland down the field to begin the game, mistakes broke the sophomore’s command of the game.

Down 14-3 after throwing his first interception, Tagovailoa’s first pass after it was another interception. This time to senior safety J.R. Pace. Although the Cats didn’t score off his second turnover, the transfer quarterback never regained his rhythm as he missed open targets. After going 56 yards on the opening drive, the Terrapins totaled a lackluster 69 over the next two quarters.

NU’s defense came into Saturday’s game with a huge edge in experience, but was lacking depth in the secondary. With senior Travis Whillock opting out of the season and junior cornerback Greg Newsome out with an injury, the Cats young secondary stepped up to the challenge.

Hampton and redshirt freshman Coco Azema both finished the game with an interception. Redshirt freshman Brandon Joseph, starting with Whillock opting out, led the team with seven tackles and behind him was redshirt freshman Rod Heard, who replaced Newsome at corner.

“That’s good for us to see going forward for the future,” Pace said. “(They) still got a lot of room to grow, but for them to come out fast and make those big plays, it’s exciting.”

By the end of the game, the Cats’ outgained Maryland 537-171. Ramsey finished the game with 212 yards passing. NU forced four turnovers, more than any game last season.

But that wasn’t the most memorable number of the night.

With NU’s win, Fitzgerald reached his 100th win in Northwestern history, which ranks third among active Big Ten coaches behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz.

Many expected the feat to happen last season, but the Cats had to wait a little longer than planned. Fitzgerald was quick to thank his players, staff and families who have played a part in the program’s success.

“It’s awesome,” Fitz said about his accomplishment. “It’s about the players. It’s about the families and I’m just so proud of those guys and I’m honored to be their coach. To all those that played here, I’m sorry it took so long to get to 100, but hopefully the next 100 will go a lot faster.”

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Twitter: @andrewcgolden

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