Football: Northwestern’s quarterback issues headline rough offensive performance in 31-3 loss to Minnesota


Daily file photo by Kimberly Espinosa

Northwestern starting quarterback Brendan Sullivan looks to catch the snap. Sullivan threw for 94 yards in Saturday’s loss at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Skye Swann, Assistant Gameday Editor

Another week, another game where Northwestern’s offense struggled to come into their own, dropping another matchup due to miscues and incomplete passes on the field. And for yet another week, the Wildcats’ quarterback situation was a major area of concern.

Expectedly, sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan received the start in Saturday’s 31-3 loss to Minnesota. Although Sullivan showed promise last weekend against No. 2 Ohio State, the Wildcats (1-9, 1-6 Big Ten) offensive line struggled immensely while playing the Gophers (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) and both Sullivan and backup Ryan Hilinski left the game with injuries.

“Our inability to be successful and sustain drives on third downs led to our defense being on the field for too long,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Sullivan finished the game with a total of 94 passing yards, arguably a better performance than last weekend’s wildcat formation craze. However, his sense of urgency and vision on the field didn’t come to fruition until later into the second quarter when Sullivan threw a deep 27 yard pass to senior wide receiver Malik Washington for a first down. The momentum-changing play inched NU closer to the end zone, but knocked Sullivan out of the game.

After the hit, Hilinski suited up for the first time of the game, looking to curb NU’s deficit on the scoreboard. The Washington-Hilinski connection pushed the Cats into field goal range, leading to a three-point finish heading into halftime. Despite the last-minute success, NU’s switching of the quarterbacks in the quarter begged the question whether the squad’s offensive hardships are rooted in the captain of the attacking unit.

The second half brought even more changes. Fitzgerald said in the postgame press conference that the medical staff cleared Sullivan to play, prompting another quarterback switch. Unlike past games, he still struggled, forcing passes on covered players or getting stopped by Minnesota’s secondary. The Gophers box remained strong, denying Sullivan or junior running back Evan Hull’s ability to get past the defensive line.

“To me, watching that first drive, (Sullivan) looked uncomfortable physically,” Fitzgerald said. “The medical team felt like it was the best decision to go with Ryan.”

In the third quarter alone, the Cats covered only 42 passing yards in comparison to Minnesota’s 110 yards. NU’s quarterback issues remained prominent for the rest of the game. Hilinski was substituted back in the game, but he was carted off with what appeared to be a lower-body injury.

Following his departure, third-string quarterback Carl Richardson stepped onto the field, recording 37 yards and an interception. During the last quarter, fourth-string quarterback Cole Freeman got some action as well. By game’s end, NU had 206 passing yards to the Golden Gophers’ 64, but the four quarterbacks combined for a pair of interceptions.

Approaching the last stretch of the season, the Cats will have two more chances to finish the year with another win to their record. Trailing in last place in the Big Ten Conference, if NU hopes to work out their offensive malaise, the first step is securing the quarterback problem.

“For me, it’s about sticking together, creating a brotherhood and sending guys out the right way,” Washington said. “Just coming together and enjoying these last two weeks.”

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