Football: Sullivan’s first appearance under center brings mixed results in in lopsided loss to Wisconsin


Seeger Gray/Daily Senior Staffer

Brendan Sullivan. The Michigan native threw Northwestern’s lone touchdown against Wisconsin in his college debut.

Charlotte Varnes, Sports Editor

When sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan made his college football debut against Wisconsin Saturday, settling in took time.

Northwestern’s offense initially sputtered when Sullivan entered the game. After throwing three straight three-and-outs in the first half, he was benched. But, when Sullivan entered in place of injured junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski in the third quarter, it was like an entirely new player took the field. 

In the second half alone, he threw a 31-yard pass to Bryce Kirtz. He tallied a touchdown pass. He ran for 39 yards, leading the Wildcats (1-5,1-2 Big Ten) in rushing. For Sullivan, hitting his stride came with time. 

“Those first couple of drives, I’m running around like a chicken with his head cut off,” Sullivan said. “(With experience I was) settling down and trusting the guys next to me.” 

In a lopsided, 42-7 loss against the Badgers (3-3, 1-2), NU’s offense didn’t do much to capture viewers’ attention. But a quarterback switch early in the second quarter – and another change near halftime – brought renewed attention to the position. Offensive inconsistency and miscues haunted the Cats, ultimately leading to just one touchdown in 60 minutes of play.

Hilinski started the first quarter going 3-for-8 with just a handful of successful passes to junior tight end Thomas Gordon and senior wide receiver Donny Navarro. He ended the period with an interception into double coverage, handing Wisconsin the ball and fueling a series that ultimately ended in a touchdown.

When NU regained possession in the second quarter, Hilinski was sidelined — but not because of the interception. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said he planned to substitute Sullivan for Hilinski on the third series of the game regardless of what happened on the field. He said he was disappointed it happened after a turnover.

“Part of the plan was to get him out there and get him into the mix, see if we could get a spark,” Fitzgerald said.

But, after three consecutive three-and-outs, Hilinski hit the field again. He came out firing, getting the Cats in field goal territory to end the second quarter, and he managed four completions to kick off the third. However, soon after, Hilinski threw an interception and was tackled so roughly that he left the game due to concussion protocol. 

Sullivan stepped in to finish what Hilinski had started. In his first series in the third quarter, he managed to complete three passes and rush for 20 yards before he fumbled and the Badgers regained possession. Despite the fumble, Sullivan said he felt much more comfortable and “ready to go” as soon as he took the field in the third. 

A short pass to sophomore running back Anthony Tyus III finally landed NU on the board for Sullivan’s first touchdown pass with the Cats. 

Sullivan’s success on Saturday reignited a quarterback battle that began over the summer, when he was a surprise contender to Hilinski for NU’s starting quarterback spot. In recent months, Sullivan said he and Hilinski have pushed each other and made each other better players. He also said he’s picked Hilinski’s brain about the game, citing Hilinski’s Big Ten and SEC playing experience.

Fitzgerald said concerns about quarterbacks are often exacerbated when the team isn’t winning. He said Sullivan’s success was heartening, but it’s ultimately on the team to help him and Hilinski succeed in games. 

“We’ve got to help them up front,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to help them with catching the ball, getting open for them and timing. We’ve got to have balance and be able to run the ball – and then they’ve got to do their jobs.”

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