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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Rapid Recap: Rutgers 24, Northwestern 7

Micah Sandy/The Daily Northwestern
Graduate student quarterback Ben Bryant gets hit in the pocket. In his Northwestern debut, Bryant completed 20-of-35 passes for 169 yards and two interceptions in the Wildcats’ 24-7 loss to Rutgers.

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Northwestern kicked off the first game in the post-Pat Fitzgerald era on Sunday, falling 24-7 on the road at Rutgers.

The loss to the Scarlet Knights (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) marks the 12th consecutive defeat for the Wildcats (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten), as last year’s struggles were realized once again.

“Disappointed with the outcome,” interim head coach David Braun said. “Came here to win a football game (and we) fell short. There’s a lot to work on, that’s very evident.”

Rutgers, under new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, marched out to a commanding 17-0 lead after scoring on its opening three drives. The NU defense was able to settle down in the remaining three quarters, surrendering just seven more points, but the offense’s stagnation proved too much to overcome.

Here are five takeaways from the Cats’ season-opening bout with the Scarlet Knights.


1. NU defense sputters early in loss

The Wildcats returned its two leading tacklers from last season in senior linebackers Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller. It didn’t mean much in NU’s season opener, though, despite Gallagher posting a game-high 19 tackles.

For the third consecutive season, the Cats’ opponent scored on its opening drive of the season, with Rutgers marching 75 yards down the field for six points. After the NU offense’s first drive ended after five plays, the Scarlet Knights compiled a 16-play, 80-yard drive for another touchdown, as Gavin Wimsatt trotted into the end zone.

Under the tutelage of Ciarrocca, Rutgers picked apart the Cats’ defense in the first half. The Scarlet Knights, which finished 2022 as the second-lowest scoring unit in the Big Ten, ultimately hung 24 points on NU, with little resistance from the visitors.

“All I care about is getting the win and that didn’t happen today,” Gallagher said. “I felt, as a defense, we got some momentum as the game went on and got comfortable, settled in and played a good second half. We’re looking forward to building off that in the coming weeks.”

2. NU’s offensive line struggles

Senior captain Josh Priebe is the Cats’ lone holdover on the offensive line from 2022. The losses of first round draft pick Peter Skoronski, along with Charlie Schmidt, Ethan Wiederkehr and Vincent Picozzi were evident throughout Sunday’s contest.

Rutgers’ defensive line won, in rather convincing fashion, the battle in the trenches. Graduate student transfer quarterback Ben Bryant faced constant pressure during nearly every snap, as the Scarlet Knights finished the game with five sacks and two quarterback hits.

NU also struggled to generate much of anything in the run game, with senior Cam Porter, junior Anthony Tyus III and sophomore Joseph Himon II consistently swallowed up in the backfield. The void left in the running game by Evan Hull’s departure was clear, with the Cats’ running back room concluding the game with a measly 12 rushing yards.

“I’m going to have to go back and take a look at the film,” Braun said of the offensive line’s performance. “What I do know moving forward is we need to do a better job of establishing our run game and protecting our quarterback.”

3. First impressions of the six newcomers

During fall camp, Braun drove home the point that NU needed stability under center. After Bryant’s play against Rutgers, that position is likely still under evaluation.

NU’s aforementioned offensive line struggles hampered Bryant’s debut, but his performance was less than stellar. He completed 20-of-35 passes for 169 yards, with a pair of interceptions.
On the defense, graduate student defensive lineman R.J. Pearson did not play. Graduate student Matt Lawson suffered a lower-body injury in the third quarter and did not return, with his Cats debut cut short after one tackle. Richie Hagarty, the final graduate student transfer on the defensive line, registered five tackles and a quarterback hit.

Henning was targeted three times in the first half, hauling in one pass for 26 yards, while also tallying one carry for seven yards. He caught three additional passes in the second half for 16 yards. The other addition in the receiving corps, graduate student wide receiver Cam Johnson, led the team in receiving, tallying four receptions for 45 yards.

4. Renner tabbed as NU’s first-choice punter

Senior punter Hunter Renner, who attempted just 12 punts last season, earned the starting nod over fellow senior and incumbent punter Luke Akers on Sunday.

Akers, who accounted for nearly 75% of NU’s punts in 2022, did not see the field, as Renner was asked to produce with both his boot and his arm. The Mishawaka, Indiana, native’s first punt went for 46 yards, nearly 10 yards longer than his average last year. When the Cats attempted a fake punt in the second quarter, Renner completed a seven-yard pass to junior defensive back Rod Heard II, but Braun’s gamble was all for naught as Heard was tackled short of the sticks.

Renner finished the day with an average of 39.8 yards on six punts for 239 yards.

5. NU returns home for first game at Ryan Field sans Fitzgerald

Licking their wounds, the Cats will return to Evanston with five days to prepare for the team’s home opener against UTEP. Saturday’s game will also mark NU’s first game at Ryan Field without Pat Fitzgerald at the helm since 2005.

The Miners have started the season 1-1, defeating Incarnate Wood 28-14 on Saturday after dropping their season opener to Jacksonville State.

Last season’s upset losses at home to Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) will be on the mind of all those in attendance as the Cats look to remedy Sunday’s woes.

“It’s really easy to get emotional and passionate about ‘This is what we’re going to do’ and about linear growth,” Braun said. “That’s not the way any season works. It doesn’t matter if you win a national championship or are scratching for your first win of the season. There’s going to be ups and downs, and we just happened to start off the season on a disappointing loss.”

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Twitter: @CervantesPAlex

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