Football: Northwestern struggles to find rhythm, drops homecoming game against Wisconsin 42-7


Seeger Gray/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior receiver Bryce Kirtz hauls in a pass along the sideline. NU’s offense scored just seven points for the second straight week, losing 42-7 to Wisconsin.

Skye Swann, Assistant Gameday Editor

Early on, a packed Ryan Field was filled with a sea of purple. That first-half energy was the only thing that went the Wildcats’ way in Northwestern’s homecoming matchup with Wisconsin on Saturday. 

The Cats (1-5, 1-2 Big Ten) struggled mightily against the Badgers (3-3, 1-2), suffering a 42-7 loss at home. NU enters its bye week with a five-game losing streak, with their only win coming across the pond in Ireland. 

“I’m really disappointed, but we need the bye (week) as much as we need a win,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “And so at least we get one out of the two.”

While NU had issues offensively against Penn State, the unit did not look any better, appearing sluggish and making careless mistakes each possession. When the Badgers took over on offense, Wisconsin cruised past the Cats with effective rushing and passing. Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski had difficulty seeing the plays in the first quarter. On his second drive, Hilinski threw an interception, and on the next drive, sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan took his place. 

However, the substitution on the offense had little impact to turn momentum — NU watched Wisconsin starting quarterback Graham Mertz convert a 65-yard drive for the first touchdown of the game. Mertz’s accuracy and vision on the field plagued the Cats for the whole game. On the other hand, NU’s offensive line could not make quick adjustments between plays to allow Sullivan more time to pass the ball, and his first three drives ended in three-and-outs. 

By the start of the second quarter, the Badgers led by 14 while the Cats struggled to execute a substantial play. Another issue NU dealt with was their third-down conversion ratio — a paltry 18 percent. The lack of big plays put most of the pressure on the squad’s defensive line. 

“On our end we need to clean stuff up, execution wasn’t where it needed to be,” junior defensive back Garnett Hollis, Jr. said. 

The defensive end of the field was a problem aside from the Cats’ offensive woes. Not only did NU allow Mertz to get off his passes, but the secondary was getting beat by the wide receivers. Wisconsin finished the afternoon with six passing touchdowns, while NU only had one late in the fourth quarter. 

Additionally, the Cats’ defensive line struggled to grab any interceptions or sack Mertz to block a pass. Although this Badger team just received a 24-point loss to Illinois last week, this unit appeared to be a completely different team under interim coach Jim Leonhard, who was in his first game at the helm. NU was not expecting these fast adjustments, according to Fitzgerald. He said Wisconsin covered all their spots and exploited the Cats’ weaknesses. 

Moving forward, Fitzgerald said the bye week is a time for them to reevaluate their assets and problems. Sullivan said the downtime will give him and his teammates the opportunity to get better by watching film. 

After this game, it’s clear NU needs to focus on taking their hard efforts on the practice field and implementing it during game time. The issue to contend with is what the next steps are for the team to replicate its success in the 2020 season. Despite this group being on the younger side, the Cats have potential, Fitzgerald said, to make a turnaround for the latter half of the season. 

“We just need to put trust in the preparation and trust in the work we put in during the off-season,” Sullivan said. “I haven’t seen the film yet, but I have trust in my teammates and trust in myself.”

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