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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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Football: Northwestern gets obliterated by Rutgers in the trenches, loses offensive and defensive line battles

Micah Sandy/The Daily Northwestern
Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt rolls to his right while being pressured by graduate defensive lineman Jaylen Pate. NU finished with zero sacks on Sunday.

In football, the game starts at the line of scrimmage. 

It’s always been this way. And it always will be.

Northwestern lost this battle on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball on Sunday against Rutgers — a major part of its 24-7 disappointing loss.

“Both sides of the football need to be a critical emphasis,” interim head coach David Braun said. “We need to convert on third down offensively, and defensively, we certainly didn’t help out the offense early in the game.” 

Entering the season, it’s hard to determine which group had the most questions to answer amongst position groups. 

On top of replacing 2023 first round draft pick left tackle Peter Skoronski, the offensive line returned only one starter from last year — senior captain Josh Priebe. Priebe went down in October 2022 with an ACL injury. 

That leaves a player that hasn’t played in a game in nearly a year alongside an inexperienced bunch. Rutgers exposed this reality, stifling the run game, which rushed for 12 yards on 22 carries. Junior quarterback Brendan Sullivan, who played in the offense’s final drive of the contest, picked up 11 of the 12 yards. 

Of course, sixth-year quarterback Ben Bryant’s -15 yards skewed the statistic, but senior running back Cam Porter had little to no success running laterally or up the middle as well. Braun noted the team’s running woes as one of areas the offense needs to work on.

“We need to do a better job of establishing our run game and protecting our quarterback,” Braun said. “We need to be more balanced offensively, and again, we need to continue to be just very mindful of getting the ball in our playmakers’ hands.”  

Some of Sunday’s game changers included wideouts sixth-year Cam Johnson and senior A.J. Henning, who combined for 87 receiving yards. Bryant struggled to find his top two wide receivers because of the pressure Rutgers’ defense was able to put on him. The Scarlet Knights shredded through NU’s offensive line, collecting five sacks and eight tackles for loss.

That doesn’t touch on the multiple bad snaps Bryant received. One of those came near the end of the first half, where he reached up with his right hand to catch the snap, rolled to his right where he was immediately pressured by a Rutgers’ defender and ultimately threw the game’s first interception. 

Bryant made it clear that the offense’s struggles weren’t solely on his blockers while speaking post-game, placing part of the blame on himself. Rather than one position group needing to get better, he pointed toward the entire offense.

“We’re going to continue to rely on (the offensive line) to help us win games,” Bryant said. “A sack isn’t always their fault, so we got to get open, we got to execute the play, we got to make the play and get the ball quick. So it’s really just an everyone thing.”   

While Priebe is the lone starter from the 2022 season on the offensive line, senior defensive lineman Sean McLaughlin is in a comparable boat.

The group of defensive line departures was headlined by 2023 fourth-round draft pick Adetomiwa Adebawore and a plethora of other starters or backups. This, once again, was clear against Rutgers offense and quarterback Gavin Wimsatt. 

The Scarlet Knights produced back-to-back 16-play touchdown drives to start the contest, carried by 3rd and 4th down execution. On critical downs, the defensive line’s performance is more important than ever. But in those situations on Sunday, especially in the first half, either Wimsatt had forever and a day to find an open wide receiver, or the running back room led by Kyle Monangai found a hole in NU’s defense.

Even with this type of time, Wimsatt only threw for 163 yards and one touchdown, proving that NU wasn’t dominated in the air. It was Rutgers’ conversions on third and fourth down that killed them. 

Braun pointed out how those struggles can be fixed.

“If you go back to the 16-play drives, we had opportunities to get off the field, we had opportunities for takeaways,” Braun said. “It’s not going outside the framework of the defense trying to do too much, it’s just when opportunities come to make a tackle, make the tackle.”    

The Cats’ defense found their footing as the game continued, surrendering just seven points the entire second half. 

With so much inexperience, time to mesh as a unit and changes that need to be made, NU’s second-half adjustments proved that the best way these problems can be fixed is repetition, specifically in-game. No matter the amount of practice reps, nothing elevates a player’s performance more than competing in a game itself. 

Senior linebacker Bryce Gallagher, who finished with a career-high in tackles with 19, said his teammates in front of him played very well. But the numbers say otherwise, as the Cats’ lackluster pressure on Wimsatt, alongside Rutgers’ consistent attack on Bryant and the run game, affected both sides of the ball on all levels.

And it all starts at the line of scrimmage.

“When our offense did have opportunities later in the game to catch some rhythm, we weren’t able to sustain drives, we weren’t able to pick up first downs,” Braun said. “A lot of work to do in all phases of the game, but I’m certainly excited about the communication and poise that’s happening on (the defensive) side of the ball.”

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Twitter: @LPIII_TRES 

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