The word that emerged in my brain while watching Northwestern feverishly sweat and vomit through a hilariously misleading 30-23 loss to Duke was shattered.
For the second time in three weeks, defeat was an inevitability within about 3 minutes. While Michigan State decided to take the first play of the game 75 yards to the crib, Duke took their sweet time, forcing a three-and-out (with help from a Northwestern delay of game on its first play) before taking 4 offensive plays to go ahead 7-0. Then they did it again.
Everything got worse from there. The only reason Duke didn’t score the first 35 rather than merely the first 27 is that David Cutcliffe is a merciful but naïve soul who opted for two chip shot field goals rather than twisting his boot on Pat Fitzgerald’s very wide and short neck.
[Editor’s note: Pat Fitzgerald’s record while wearing shorts falls to whatever, who cares.]
The offputting vibes of an 80% empty, sticky, humid Wallace Wade Stadium in a sleepy blowout on the ACC Network watched in between packing boxes for an upcoming move made for an unnerving tomb for the career of Hunter Johnson.
There’s no need to be coy or roundabout in saying that barring extreme injury, it is a near impossibility that Hunter Johnson will ever take another meaningful snap for Northwestern. You do not play a game like that, get benched for your back-up, then watch your backup’s backup go in and go on to reclaim your starting job. Pat Fitzgerald’s seething comments to the press suggest a simple truth.
It’s over now.
It’s extremely jarring watching someone who was once observably singularly talented at their job lose the plot.
If the 18-year-old, ESPN No. 1 high school player version of Hunter Johnson were on Northwestern, I think he would be an above-average Big Ten football player. The 20-something-year-old version looks to be lost in the realm between realms, likely for good.
Quarterback is an impossibly difficult and finicky job, and as such, the rules for progression and development don’t apply. You can be a good quarterback then fall into a weird situation and get broken permanently. Preseason All-Big Ten QB Mike Penix is going through this right now in Bloomington. You can be a bad quarterback and accidentally succeed and then become actually good. Josh Allen was bad forever, now he appears to kick ass.
The RNG of a sport where every outcome depends on 18 different interconnecting randomalities vibrating in Byzantine ways wreaks havoc on the brain of the one player ostensibly in charge of managing the chaos. Then their failures are the ones any jerk sitting on their couch can point at and wisely say “dude who the fuck are you throwing to, goddammit.”
That’s a tough situation.
Fair or not, explainable or not, it is abundantly clear now that the once uber recruit from Indiana who completed 90% of his first 20 passes as a college quarterback is no longer that player anymore. Whether it’s the physical wear and tear of playing football for a long time piling up, a crisis of confidence that’s manifesting in increasingly inscrutable interceptions, or just never settling in after leaving the Carolinas, Hunter Johnson appears to be worse now than he ever was before. And I hate that for him as much as for me.
As if playing 20 or so minutes of the worst football of his life wasn’t enough, Johnson got to also see his backup, Andrew Marty, be anointed a potential savior for the team. Marty, who was definitely not a five-star recruit, has started one game in his college career where he went 6/10 for 55 yards with an interception and a touchdown alongside 111 rushing yards on 30 (!!!) carries against an offensively poor Illinois team who were resting multiple key defensive players.
He, from a bird’s eye view, does not appear to have the body of work to inspire hype.
But it’s Marty who has the juice now. He earned the starting job with aplomb in his relief outing, throwing balls where they needed to be and running with the power and finesse someone who totes the ball 30 times in a game must have, unfortunate fumble aside. Perhaps Marty is one of those players that cannot do anything in practice but dominates in-game.
Assuming his injury, which has been lovingly detailed by Northwestern to be “not his leg or anything connected to it, but potentially literally anything else,” is not major, he’s now your starter and observably better than either of the ex-stud recruits and Good Get transfers in the Northwestern quarterback room.
What it means for Northwestern this year is “Whatever man, this is boring, who cares.”
The team is what it is, a sputtering and weird group who are not this bad, really, but probably aren’t all that much better regardless of who is taking the snaps. Since they’re not going to run the Marty Triple Option, we know what we’re going to get. My preseason fears of the team being smelly are mostly confirmed, yet they can still win 5 or 6 games by accident as much as anything else. They can also go 3-9 again. I don’t think all the fervor over Andrew Marty moving the ball against a team that quit playing with 35 minutes left to play is necessarily well-placed. I think the supplication of Mick McCall with Jim O’Neil as the resident Guy Who Is The Totem Of All That Plagues The Team is the kind of deeply unserious shitposting that should get someone’s internet access taken away. QED.
What I do care about is how this all makes someone feel.
I certainly won’t get it from the lies players and coaches tell the media about “just needing to trust themselves” and “having a great week of practice out there” and that “we’re all ready to get out there and prepare and do our job.”
For me, a selfish, sicko fan with a desire to get inside the head of a kid who plays a sport I never did at a level I can’t imagine, the answers I want are not available. Jon Krakauer is not going to write a biography of Hunter Johnson. We can only speculate.
But while we are speculating, I just don’t believe Dabo Swinney, and an entire economy worth of scouts and prognosticators, and the Northwestern coaching staff, and the Purdue coaching staff, and dozens of others of coaching staffs, and most importantly myself were all wrong in their read that Hunter Johnson could be an incredible football player. We certainly appear to be so now. But was that an inevitability? Or did something between then and now go horribly awry? I still think it’s the latter.
I want to know what cracked, and when that happened, and whether or not it was really ever even salvageable.
I, very badly, just want to know why. And only one person knows the answer.