Northwestern has played just one game this season and is already dealing with a significant injury. The Wildcats received a bye following their season-opening, 17-7 loss at Stanford two weeks ago, giving them an opportunity to clean things up. But moving forward, Northwestern will be without senior quarterback TJ Green, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in the opener.
Green left the Stanford game in the third quarter due to the injury and head coach Pat Fitzgerald announced last week that he underwent surgery. Green's absence means Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson will be the main QB beginning with Saturday's home opener against UNLV.
Against Stanford, Fitzgerald was content with employing a two-QB approach. After Green and Johnson competed throughout the offseason for the starting job, the expectation was that Fitzgerald would name his No. 1 at some point during fall camp or leading into the season opener. That didn't happen, as Fitzgerald instead decided to give both quarterbacks a chance to run the offense against the Cardinal.
Before the injury, Green completed 6-of-10 passes for 62 yards with 10 rushing yards on three carries. He was sacked once, which apparently was the play during which he sustained his foot injury. To add insult to injury, he also fumbled the ball away on that sack, ending a potential scoring opportunity in the red zone. For his part, Johnson struggled even more with his accuracy (6-for-17), finishing with 55 yards and also tossing two interceptions. Johnson had 13 rushing yards on 11 carries, was sacked twice and had two fumbles (losing one). As a team, the Wildcats struggled offensively, managing just 210 total yards and committing four turnovers. Improving that starts with the quarterback.
So with UNLV up next on Saturday, here are four ways that Johnson's showing against the Rebels can be more productive compared to what took place two weeks ago.
1. Better offensive line play
Northwestern's O-line surrendered three sacks and allowed five quarterback pressures against Stanford. The Cardinal's 3-4 defense (a rarity in college football) made both Green and Johnson uncomfortable for just about the entire game. Both quarterbacks were forced to make either erratic throws, throw off of their back foot, or just throw the ball away. UNLV already has four sacks on the season. One of the best ways to help a young quarterback is to give him plenty of time in the pocket to make a play. Johnson's mobility should help him if protection breaks down but then it's a matter of making the right decision once he takes off.
2. Run the ball more
A quarterback's best friend, regardless of experience, is an effective running game. In the opener, Northwestern ran the ball 33 times for just 93 yards (2.8 ypr). More than half of the carries went to Johnson (team-high 11) and running back Isaiah Bowser (10). Bowser led the way with 54 yards and they didn't come easy. John Moten IV had the Wildcats' lone touchdown, a one-yard run midway through the fourth quarter that made it a 10-7 game.
Simply put, 10 carries is not enough for Bowser, who led Northwestern with 866 yards on 197 carries (4.4 ypc) in 11 games as a freshman last season. Giving Bowser the ball early and often against UNLV on Saturday with the intention of establishing the run early will take pressure off of Johnson. It certainly doesn't hurt that the Rebels have already given up 260 yards and three touchdowns on the ground through two games (vs. Southern Utah, Arkansas State).
3. Reduce penalties
Northwestern committed eight penalties for 67 yards against Stanford. Among those, three were charged to the offense, all of which helped short-circuit crucial Northwestern drives. Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern has a reputation for being well coached and playing disciplined football. This is something that can be corrected in practice leading up to the game. Fewer self-inflicted penalties usually increase a team's margin of error. Also, not having to play behind the chains a lot will help Johnson settle into his new role.
4. Johnson needs to be consistent and efficient
It was just one game, but Johnson clearly showed there's room for improvement. He posted a completion rate of 35.3 percent (6-for-17) and averaged just 3.2 yards per attempt. He had zero touchdown passes and two interceptions. Even if Northwestern is able to run at will on UNLV, Johnson will get opportunities to throw the ball. When he does, he needs to show better accuracy, pocket presence, and arm strength. Johnson was one of the top quarterback recruits in the country coming out of his high school and originally started at Clemson before transferring to Northwestern. Now is his time to shine. The Rebels aren't known for their defense and opponents have already thrown for 579 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions against them through the first two games.
Johnson also must take better care of the football. He was responsible for three of the team's four turnovers (two interceptions, one lost fumble) in the loss at Stanford. Hopefully, the first game jitters are behind Johnson and he's ready to get this offense moving.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of nusports.com)