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

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

The Daily Northwestern

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Football: Immobility, Nebraska defense creates slippery slope for quarterback Sullivan

Angeli Mittal/The Daily Northwestern
Starting over an injured Ben Bryant, junior quarterback Brendan Sullivan hands the ball off during the loss to Nebraska Saturday.

One step forward, three steps back.

For Northwestern junior quarterback Brendan Sullivan, a share of long-haul completions and running yardage proved fleeting against eight sacks and 13 tackles for loss from a dominant Nebraska defense on Saturday.

The starter left the ‘Cats without a touchdown, completing 52% of passes for 176 yards. Continually taken down behind the line, the quarterback – who was prone to scramble at any given moment – was met early on by a red-and-white wall of Cornhuskers’ defenders.

Potentially thwarted by a right hand he taped up on the sideline, Sullivan threw just two completions for 10 yards in the first half — the ‘Cats’ fewest first half pass yards since 2015. Following halftime, however, Sullivan then threw for 166 yards (35 more than his last starting appearance). Overall, he failed to convert the ball for 80% of third-downs.

“I’m proud of Sully,” interim head coach David Braun said at a postgame conference. “All I care about is that young man put it all out on the field. That’s all we can ask these guys.”

After Sullivan led the ‘Cats to a 23-20 win over Howard before the bye, Saturday marked his second consecutive nod of the season. Usual starter Ben Bryant, a sixth-year transfer from Cincinnati, missed his second straight contest after sustaining an upper-body injury against Penn State.

Although NU’s defense gave the quarterback and the offense a great starting field position on their first drive, Sullivan stifled the ‘Cats’ chance of early momentum. Minutes after sophomore defensive back Devin Turner intercepted Nebraska’s first ball of the game, the Davison, Michigan native botched the first snap before overthrowing a pass for a near-interception, then getting sacked after a pocket wrap-up on the next two plays.

Sullivan found himself in a similar position two drives later – after Rod Heard II took an interception to the Nebraska 13-yard line. With the run game unable to reach the endzone, Sullivan’s hesitation on second and 18 amounted to a nine-yard sack — his second in three drives.

The ‘Cats closest chance at a touchdown didn’t come until the fourth quarter, when Sullivan connected with redshirt senior receiver Bryce Kirtz for a 66-yard reception. Looking at first and goal on the Cornhuskers’ nine-yard line, the quarterback handed off to Anthony Tyus III for four yards before running for a loss of two yards with a wide-open senior tight end Marshall Lang near the endzone.

Play after play, hand-offs remained Sullivan’s weapon of choice, with Tyus as his main ammunition against the Nebraska secondary. This was apparent during a second quarter drive where Sullivan handed it off to him for four consecutive plays. The junior running back rushed for a season-high of 63 yards.

Sullivan’s reliance on running backs — notably, Tyus, senior Cam Porter and sophomore Joseph Himon II — to move the ball made for predictable targets for the Nebraska secondary. As a result, the Cornhuskers defense garnered their most tackles for loss (13) since 2019.

The running quarterback found some success scrambling in the second half, but Nebraska’s top-25 defense nationally maintained pressure in the pocket, with a trio taking down Sullivan at the game’s close. With a total of 16 sacks going into Saturday’s game, Sullivan received a third of the Cornhuskers’ takedowns so far this season.

Last year’s starter, Ryan Hilinski, threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns in the 31-28 win over Nebraska for the team’s sole win of the season. Hilinski wasn’t turned to once on Saturday. Braun said “there wasn’t a consideration” of making a change at quarterback during the game.

Although he gave no update on a specific timeline, Braun said the team expects to see Bryant back on the field “at some point.” With Maryland coming into town next Saturday, the game will mark nearly a month since Bryant’s injury.

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Twitter: @elenahubert25

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