Football: Northwestern shuffles through three quarterbacks in 30-23 loss to Duke


Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Andrew Marty throws the ball. The senior quarterback finished with 195 total yards and three touchdowns after replacing starter Hunter Johnson.

John Riker, Sports Editor


In Northwestern’s season-opening loss to Michigan State, senior quarterback Hunter Johnson’s three-touchdown performance was one of the few silver linings. And even after a pedestrian effort in the Wildcats’ win over Indiana State, Johnson’s status as the starting quarterback was hardly in question.

A quarter into NU’s game at Duke, all semblance of Johnson’s handle on the starting role had dissipated.

Three-and-outs on the Cats’ first two possessions. A fumble in the red zone. An interception on a miscommunication with his receiver. Another pick on a poorly-lofted pass.

After Johnson’s third interception, coach Pat Fitzgerald sent out fellow senior Andrew Marty for NU’s final possession of the first half, down 27-0.

The Blue Devils’ 420 first half yards made life tougher for the Cats’ offense, but Johnson’s four turnovers — which Duke (2-1) converted into 19 points — dealt NU (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) a blow that not even a furious second-half rally could overcome in a 30-23 defeat.

Three weeks into the season, the Cats are back to square one at the game’s most important position.

“We gave the game away in the first half,” Fitzgerald said. “They went out and fought their tails off in the second half, but again, too many opportunities squandered.”

After NU’s defense surrendered two touchdowns to Duke’s Mataeo Durant to open the day, the heat was on Johnson to rally the Cats back from a 14-0 deficit. A 44-yard strike to sophomore receiver Bryce Kirtz set NU up in the red zone, only for a Duke strip-sack to give the Blue Devils’ offense another opportunity.

The Cats’ offense only unraveled further in the second quarter. Anticipating an out route to the left sideline, Johnson took a shot that Duke’s Jeremiah Lewis caught easily. Blue Devils quarterback Jordan Moore punched in the ensuing direct snap from nine yards out for Duke’s third touchdown of the quarter.

Johnson followed it up by throwing ill-advised interceptions on two of the Cats’ next three drives, failing to set his footing in the face of defensive pressure and attempting major risks that backfired.

“Losing teams turn the ball over,” Fitzgerald said. “Losing teams have self-inflicted wounds. Losing teams give up explosive plays. Losing teams have communication issues. That’s why you lose games — this is not hard.”

With 2:16 remaining in the first half, Marty took Johnson’s place and immediately gave the offense the dynamism and aggressive mentality it was missing. After two quick completions to drive the Cats downfield, Marty stepped up in the pocket and delivered a 31-yard strike over the middle to wide-open freshman receiver Jacob Gill to put NU on the scoreboard.

Marty picked up where he left off in the second half. A 40-yard pass to graduate transfer receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. set up NU in scoring position before Marty fooled the defense on a play action and found Marshall Lang behind the secondary for a 20-yard score.

Then it was the Cats defense’s turn, recovering a Durant fumble on Duke’s seven yard line. A couple plays later, Marty pushed his way across the goal line for a touchdown. Suddenly, what had been an early 27 point deficit had become a 30-20 ballgame.

“(Marty) went in and was ready to roll,” Fitzgerald said. “He was confident, was capable and just trusted himself and took what the defense gave him. It’s ultimately what the good quarterbacks do.”

Instead, the comeback fizzled out. Marty’s deep shot to Kirtz on 4th-and-8 on the Cats’ next possession nearly made it a one-possession game, but the wideout couldn’t catch the pass cleanly and NU suffered a turnover on downs.

A pair of fumbles by Marty doomed the Cats’ next two drives, but the second — a lost fumble on the tail end of a 25-yard quarterback keeper — was the most consequential. Marty exited the field with an upper-body injury after the play and did not return to action, and Fitzgerald elected to turn to his third quarterback of the day — sophomore Ryan Hilinski — instead of Johnson to keep NU’s hopes alive.

Hilinski’s first drive ended after three quick incompletions, but in his second attempt, the Cats advanced into Duke’s red zone. But the South Carolina transfer couldn’t connect on a pair of goal-line fades and NU settled for a field goal to close its deficit to 30-23.

“It’s hard to get one quarterback ready, let alone three,” Fitzgerald said. “But I’m proud of the way he went out there and put some drives together.”

Hilinski wouldn’t get a third chance. Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg — who finished the afternoon with 314 yards and a touchdown — found wide receiver Eli Pancol over the middle for a game-sealing 16-yard gain.

With Marty sidelined and Johnson and Hilinski coming off shaky performances, the Cats’ quarterback situation doesn’t have a clear answer. Three weeks into the season, NU’s quest for reliable quarterback play continues.

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Twitter: @john__riker

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