Football: Northwestern has mixed results against first-year quarterbacks


Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Devin O’Rourke goes in for a tackle. The Northwestern defense held Maryland’s first-year quarterback to under 100 yards in the air.

Drew Schott, Assistant Sports Editor


Last Saturday, Northwestern’s defense played with authority. The Wildcats held Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa to under 100 yards in his first Big Ten start, grabbed three interceptions and sacked the Alabama transfer twice in a 43-3 win.

This weekend, NU (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) will face another first-year starting quarterback when they travel to Iowa City to meet Iowa’s Spencer Petras. The Halloween matchup against the Hawkeyes (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) will mark the Cats’ sixth game in two seasons against a quarterback starting his first year in the Big Ten or first career game in the conference.

When NU faced first-year signal callers in 2019, it lost more times than it won. The Wildcats beat Illinois’ Matt Robinson, but lost to Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr., Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

In the three losses, NU allowed an average of 209 passing yards and seven total touchdowns between Penix Jr., O’Connell and Fields.

Against the Boilermakers, NU held four rushers to only 74 combined yards. As a result, O’Connell had to take control of the offense.

He exposed problems in the Cats’ secondary from the start in the early November matchup. O’Connell threw the ball 50 times — completing 34 passes — for 271 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in his first career start, a 24-22 come-from-behind victory. The game was headlined by a late and uncharacteristic pass interference call that helped give Purdue the win.

“It looks like we’ve got a lot of guys who were pressing, trying to do too much,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game last November. “It’s a byproduct of our record, byproduct of some youth and inexperience, byproduct of coaching. We’ve got to be better there without a doubt.”

For the Hoosiers the week before, the dual-threat Penix Jr. was untouchable. In less than a half, he threw just 10 passes for 162 yards and ran for a touchdown before suffering a season-ending injury. In a 31-point loss, NU could not get any pressure on him or stop Indiana’s rushing attack, as Stevie Scott III ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns.

Similar struggles occurred against the then-No. 4 Buckeyes in October 2019. Fields orchestrated Ohio State’s’ 52-3 onslaught of NU by completing nearly 80 percent of his passes for 194 yards and four touchdowns. The Cats only got to Fields once — when the score was 38-3 — and gave up a combined 217 rushing yards and two touchdowns to J.K. Dobbins and Master Teague III. The secondary was also porous, as each of the Buckeyes’ seven receivers averaged seven or more yards per catch.

“The plays they made were the plays we expected to see,” Fitzgerald said after that game, “and that’s what makes you really, really mad. Doesn’t it, when you’re calling plays from the (sideline) and they run it and you don’t stop it? That ticks you off.”

Those games were low points on NU’s 2019 calendar, but the Cats did manage to beat a first-year quarterback in their final game of the year against the Fighting Illini.

Against Illinois, Robinson — making his second career start in place of an injured Brandon Peters — had to step up because the Fighting Illini’s rushing attack was struggling; Illinois finished the day with only 14 yards from five runners. But Robinson faltered as NU brought the heat. He completed eight passes and was sacked three times in a 29-10 Cats win.

In the 2020 season opener, the Cats showed promise defensively by holding four Terrapin runners to 64 total yards. Additionally, they handled Tagovailoa — who had very little game film from his time with the Crimson Tide for NU to work off of —  by keeping his completion percentage under 60 percent. He struggled to perform all night against a revamped secondary that led the team with 23 tackles, as well as a pressuring front seven.

After having three years of Nate Stanley under center, Iowa has a new quarterback with a new set of skills in Petras. In the Hawkeyes’ 24-20 loss to Purdue, the sophomore went 22-for-39 with no touchdowns or interceptions. He demonstrated an ability to move the ball with passes of 15 yards or more — including a 40-yard pass to running back Tyler Goodson — and partnered well with a rushing attack that racked up 195 yards.

NU will need to win battles in the trenches to slow Iowa’s rushing offense. It will then be up to NU’s secondary — led by senior safety JR Pace and junior cornerback Cameron Ruiz — to slow Petras and a receiver group headlined by Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Earlier this week, Fitzgerald called Petras a player to watch Saturday afternoon at Kinnick Stadium.

“You hear about who he is as a leader,” Fitzgerald said. “He comes out excited like every first starter would be, but then really settled in.”

Fitzgerald also knows his defense must be ready for Iowa’s new signal caller.

“We’re gonna focus on us,” Fitzgerald said, “and then obviously try to get ready for the formations and plays and things that they do.”

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