Northwestern loses 24-7 to Rutgers — yes, that Rutgers — in first game without Pat Fitzgerald
Everything about this game was strange, starting with a matchup of bottom-of-the-barrel teams taking place in a national CBS telecast on a Sunday.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Northwestern backup quarterback Brendan Sullivan hit a wide-open Caleb Komolafe for a 1-yard touchdown with 19 seconds to play, and the celebration was on.
On the Wildcats sideline, a few players clapped. One punched his fist and said, “Yes!” A purple-clad fan — somebody’s mom, no doubt — shouted praise from the stands about the team not giving up.
That’s it, folks. That’s as exciting as Northwestern’s season opener got. Were you expecting more?
Game 1 of the post-Pat Fitzgerald era goes in the books as a 24-7 loss to Rutgers, Northwestern finally denting the scoreboard only after the Scarlet Knights muffed a punt with 2:45 to play. With the most recognizable face in the school’s athletics history off coaching for his son’s high school team after being fired in July, the “L” parade continued for the ’Cats, who’ve been beaten in 18 of their last 20 games against Big Ten opponents.
And did we mention the opponent this time was Rutgers? The same Rutgers that’s essentially a lock to finish with a sub-.500 Big Ten record for the 10th time in 10 years in the conference. The same Rutgers that played in the first college football game in 1869 and is widely believed to still be operating with its original playbook.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the Scarlet Knights are good just because of their twin 16-play touchdown drives in the first half, their dominant defensive stats or their should-have-been shutout. This is all about how far Northwestern has fallen.
“We’ve got enough talent on this team,” interim coach David Braun said. “People are going to tell us otherwise, but we’ve got enough talent on this team to go win football games.”
It wasn’t true when Fitzgerald’s teams went 1-8 in the league in 2021 and 2022. It can’t possibly be true now, can it?
Everything about this game was strange, starting with a matchup of bottom-of-the-barrel teams taking place in a national CBS telecast on a Sunday. But it was also a Northwestern game without Fitzgerald — still not easy to wrap the brain around — and full of subtext about the hazing scandal in Evanston, not to mention lawsuits and an ongoing investigation.
Northwestern president Michael Schill and athletic director Derrick Gragg were in the building, lending credence to the theory that both men actually exist. An ESPN story even came out Sunday in which Gragg — interviewed a week earlier — said of the scandal-scarred football team, “The group seems spirited, they seem engaged, and I think they’re very well prepared and well organized. They’re ready to go.”
They’re ready to go home and play UTEP, a team they ought to be able to beat. Maybe?
“We are going to be a great team this year, I know that,” said linebacker Bryce Gallagher, who had 19 tackles. “We have the people in that locker room and the coaches to do that. We’ll definitely get this thing going in the right direction starting next week. …
”We will come back and turn this season around.”
What else are they supposed to say?
In interviews and press conferences, this team isn’t leaning into the topic of how difficult the last couple of months have been. It’s focusing on football, which makes sense given there are 11 more games to play, like it or not. But this whole thing has to be hard for the players. And it has to be hard for Braun, who went from defensive coordinator at North Dakota State to this, a mountain of responsibility amid the fallout of a scandal he wasn’t even around for.
Fitzgerald was 110-101 in 17 seasons. Braun is trying not to go 0-12.
By the time it was 17-0 in the second quarter of Game 1, the Wildcats had given up drives of 75 and 80 yards, had three possessions of their own go nowhere and failed to convert a fake punt. Nothing wrong with the fake call, but a completed pass from the punter came up a yard short of a first down. That’s what you call a bad day.
The Wildcats could use a good day, something to celebrate, a reason to smile.
“That day is coming,” Braun said. “I can’t wait for it. I can’t wait to celebrate with this group.”
Illinois is kind of lucky to be 1-0 after a 30-28 opener against Toledo, but there’s a ton of confidence in the air in Champaign because of new QB1 Luke Altmyer. The transfer from Ole Miss played well for a first-time starter, going 18-for-26 for 211 yards and two touchdowns, and made one of the great plays of Week 1 — a 33-yard completion down the right sideline to Casey Washington on a must-have fourth-down play with 2:16 to go. Altmyer stood tall and made the throw knowing he was about to get creamed by a pair of Rockets rushers, who high-lowed him the moment he released the ball.
That’s big-time cool. Then again, Altmyer did wink at coach Bret Bielema as he was taking the field for the first time as an Illini.
“His presence, his demeanor the whole game was pretty special,” Bielema said. …
The phrase of the week is “Boneyard victory.” The Boneyard is where Northern Illinois buries — make that memorializes — all its wins against Power 5 opponents. Saturday’s victim was Boston College, which the Huskies upset 27-24 in overtime, and no one had to tell Thomas Hammock it was Boneyard win No. 18.
“I don’t need a statistician,” the happy coach said. …
A quick reminder that Colorado was 1-11 and lost seven times by at least 30 points last season. We realize Deion Sanders came in and booted most of that team’s players — which still seems cruel — but the turnaround from that to an opening 45-42 win at TCU boggles the mind. …
The Cubs bullpen sprung some leaks over the weekend in Cincinnati. Frankly, it seemed overdue. It could be shaky from here on in. …
White Sox manager Pedro Grifol benched rookie Korey Lee for failing to run out an infield pop-up, and it’s a good thing the manager did. Now Lee will run it out the next time he pops out in a 10-0 loss that drops the Sox 30 games under .500. …
According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the Sky, battling for the eighth and final WNBA playoff seed, have a 73.5% chance of getting in. Coincidentally, that’s the exact same percentage chance of the top-seeded Aces or Liberty breaking a sweat in the first round. …
What, you want a Bears-Packers prediction? OK, but you’re not going to like it.
Fine, never mind, then.
THIS YOU GOTTA SEE
Giants at Cubs (1:20 p.m. Monday, Marquee): The Giants are right behind the Cubs in the wild-card picture, a nice chance for the Cubs to open up a little breathing room. That’s your cue, Justin Steele.
Lions at Chiefs (7:20 p.m. Thursday, NBC 5): The Lions couldn’t have been stuck with a more difficult opening assignment, but one supposes the football gods had no choice but to punish them for getting kind of good.
Illinois at Kansas (6:30 p.m. Friday, ESPN2): The definition of “bulletin-board material” is opening as a 3½-point underdogs to the Jayhawks. Yes, in football.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
USA Basketball: So our NBA guys are losing to Lithuania now? Original Dream Teamers are rolling over in their Barcaloungers.
The A’s: Can’t we just get it over with and relegate them to the Pacific Coast League already?
The Cardinals: We mean the Arizona ones. Come to think of it, the St. Louis ones work, too.
Jerry Reinsdorf: It’s beginning to seem like his vast popularity among White Sox fans might actually be waning.
The Packers: Boy, do the Bears ever owe them a beating. And then a good 30 or 40 more.