Football: Gritty, gutsy and on the move — welcome to the Brendan Sullivan show


Seeger Gray/Daily Senior Staffer

Sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan readies to let the cannon loose against Wisconsin. The Michigan native made his debut under center against Wisconsin, and may get even more reps against Maryland Saturday.

Lawrence Price, Audio Editor

Before Northwestern’s game against Wisconsin, sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan hadn’t taken a live snap in nearly two years.

The last time was a huge one, though, as the then-Davison high schooler helped lead his team to 48-19 victory over Grand Blanc, clinching the 2020 Division 1 district title on Nov. 13.

Yet with Sullivan’s senior season up in the air due to Michigan high school football’s COVID-19 cancellation, three weeks later the NU commit made a life-changing decision — enrolling in college early. Sullivan tweeted that he would be closing the door on his high school career and opening up the college door at the start of the new year.

Sullivan’s eagerness to make a collegiate name for himself had to wait, as he didn’t see any action his first year in Evanston. After rising up the depth chart and battling it out with junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski this past spring and summer for the starting job, it still wasn’t Sullivan’s time to shine.

But on the third drive of NU’s homecoming contest against Wisconsin, coach Pat Fitzgerald called on the backup to man the ship.

“He had a really good week of practice last week, but he’s practiced well all year,” Fitzgerald said about Sullivan. “When he came in, I thought he was gritty, I thought he was gutsy, I thought he did some things really well, and I also think it looked at times like it was his first time being out there.” 

Sullivan’s taste of the action was short-lived in the second quarter — three straight three-and-outs — leading to Hilinski entering back into the game for the rest of the half. 

This seemed to be the script for the rest of the game, as Hilinski was still under center at the beginning of the third quarter. However, after suffering a concussion on the first drive of the half, Hilinski’s day was done, allowing Sullivan another chance at game action.

By the end of the contest, Sullivan completed 11 of his 17 passes for 114 yards, a touchdown, all while leading the team with 33 rushing yards.

“First couple of drives, I’m running all around there just like a chicken with his head cut off,” Sullivan said at his postgame press conference after the Wisconsin loss. “Just settling down and trusting everybody, that’s the main thing that happened between those drives.” 

Sullivan said a huge part of his mindset on the sidelines as he readied for his first bite of collegiate ball was believing in his preparation and the importance of a next play mentality, especially after not seeing live competition in so long.

And that’s exactly what the sophomore did. Sullivan found his groove in the first drive back at the helm, completing three passes for 26 yards and rushing for 20. However, the quarterback was unable to react in time to Wisconsin defender Nick Herbig’s pressure off the left edge, resulting in his first fumble and turnover as a Wildcat. 

Two drives later, though, Sullivan’s 41-yard back shoulder dot to junior wide receiver Bryce Kirtz put NU into the red zone for the second time the entire contest. Nearly three minutes later, Sullivan’s on-the-run throw found sophomore running back Anthony Tyus III for a touchdown — the Cats’ lone score of the game.

Senior wideout and return man Raymond Niro III had some high praise for the sophomore.

“He’s been my guy since the first time he stepped on campus,” Niro III said. “Seeing him get on the field and play the way he did, like confidence and stuff, just kind of shows the type of guy he is.”

As NU (1-5, 1-2 Big Ten) heads to Maryland (5-2, 2-2) this weekend, Fitzgerald didn’t give an update on Hilinski’s concussion protocol status, leaving the question of who will start at quarterback on Saturday up in the air. Fitzgerald added that both are receiving reps.

But with the flashes of game-changing potential that he flexed against the Badgers, Sullivan’s ready to take the offensive keys. Whether it be moving the chains with his feet similar to 2020 starting quarterback Peyton Ramsey, or letting the cannon loose to change sides of the field, the Davison native can add a new dynamic to coach Mike Bajakian’s offense.

“My athletic ability is what separates me, the ability to make big plays on the run and in the pocket,” Sullivan said. “I stayed the course and worked hard to prepare like I was the starter every day, so I feel like that’s just a testament to who I am as a person.”

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