Football: Northwestern’s running scheme finds its spark Saturday in loss to Maryland


Seeger Gray/Photo Editor

Junior running back Cam Porter carries the ball against Wisconsin. The Wildcats succeeded in the rush game against Maryland Saturday.

Skye Swann, Assistant Gameday Editor

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — When it appeared all odds were stacked against Northwestern as both teams stepped into SECU Stadium Saturday, the Wildcats proved the doubters wrong for the first thirty minutes with a surprising 17-10 lead over Maryland. 

Although the Wildcats (1-6, 1-3 in Big Ten) were connecting effectively on both ends against Maryland (6-2, 3-2), the reason for the squad’s dominance in the half was due to the rushing game. Junior running back Evan Hull led the charge, collecting 115 yards while starting quarterback Brendan Sullivan finished second with 48 yards. The Cats’ efforts on the ground weren’t enough in a 31-24 defeat.

“We felt like making the decision at this time was the right decision for the (team),” coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Sullivan’s promotion to starter. “It’s as much as trying to get a spark as much as we’re trying to do something for the team.”

Across the board, the Cats’ rushing play has been a sore subject the entire season and has fallen short of expectations. Prior to Saturday’s matchup against the Terrapins (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten), NU averaged 112.3 yards per game in comparison to Maryland’s 176 yards per game and did not top 80 yards against Wisconsin or Penn State. Each battle of the season, the Cats’ offensive line struggled to give Hull and other running backs enough open space to clear past their opponents, leading to minimal gains in yards.

But their running struggles did not stunt them during the first half against Maryland, giving NU the momentum to score the first touchdown of the game and keep the Terrapins at bay. When Sullivan made his first start in place of junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski, there was some trepidation about the Cats’ success in the game. But Sullivan showed out — playing with a  Lamar Jackson-type agility, wheeling and dealing in between Maryland defenders with swift jukes.

Sullivan’s dynamic flow continued heading into the second quarter, moving the chains to field goal range and contributing to NU’s double-digit lead, its first of the season. Combined with Hull, the powerhouse duo gained 90 yards in the second quarter alone, nearly reaching their average game total before the end of the first half. 

The running scheme was a bright spot of yet another disappointing loss for the Cats. After the much-needed bye week, the squad seemed rejuvenated and a completely different team offensively. They were converting on third downs, making yards on the field and capitalizing on every possession with the ball.

“I think being comfortable in the pocket was huge today,” Sullivan said. “Obviously we didn’t get the result we wanted, but it was fun playing football and getting my first start.”

According to Sullivan, the running game was a ploy the opponents were not expecting the Cats to establish due to the frequent implementation of the passing scheme in previous games. The success on the ground was something Sullivan attributed to the running back and offensive linemen groups, as well as his own rushing abilities.

Going into halftime with a seven-point advantage, there was real promise for NU to have a strong second half and potentially stun the Terrapins. However, Maryland gained the upper hand in the third quarter, taking back the lead for the first time in the game.

NU struggled the entire second half to gain any offensive momentum and the Terrapins seized the opportunity, tying the score and even taking the lead. The Cats’ run scheme became ineffective and their momentum dwindled down, especially after a Sullivan interception. Maryland went off on their own scoring streak, halting the Cats’ scoring run.

It wasn’t until late in the fourth quarter when NU found their running rhythm, finding solace in graduate student running back Andrew Clair. The fifth-year running back recorded a total of 27 yards in the fourth quarter and a touchdown to even the Cats to the Terrapins with six minutes remaining.

Despite the late run in the quarter, NU’s defense couldn’t hold off Maryland,allowing their opponents to take the lead with a 75-yard touchdown in the fourth with under four minutes remaining. Even though the Cats received another loss on the road —making it their sixth loss of the season — the squad remains resilient and hoping to return to its Ireland form. On Saturday, the running game took major strides toward playing winning football.

“Growing throughout the season and focusing on the film each game (has) made us improve each week on what we want to accomplish in the game,” junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher said.                                                                                                                                             

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