Maybe Hunter Johnson had time to blink, or maybe he didn’t. Either way, he was already in a hole and up against it.
Down 7-0 after one play. Down 14-0 soon after, then 21-0.
Northwestern’s quarterback could have folded Friday in what turned into a 38-21 season-opening loss to Michigan State in Evanston. He could have retreated into that old, uncomfortable space where doubts that he ever warranted so much hype live. He could have blown his second chance to lead a Wildcats team, and that would have been an unmitigated disaster.
Instead, Johnson pulled and prodded his team through a difficult, disappointing — but, because of his play, not demoralizing — game. And by the time it was over, there was no doubt whom the Wildcats’ best player had been.
Johnson completed 30 of 43 passes for 283 and three touchdowns, with no interceptions, and did all that while under constant pressure from a defense that knew the Wildcats couldn’t run the ball much and sacked him four times.
Around the Big Ten, the game will be remembered as Kenneth Walker III’s night. Michigan State’s shiny new running back, a Wake Forest transfer, raced for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play and finished with 264 yards and four TDs. It could be Michigan State — a game under .500 since making the 2015 College Football Playoff — is kind of on the way back.
In Evanston, the takeaways are different. The defending Big Ten West champs have plenty of early problems to dig into: poor tackling, less-than-stellar offensive line play, missed kicks, a complicated transition from longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to newcomer Jim O’Neill. But there are zero questions at quarterback: Johnson is their guy. And that comes as a giant relief.
“It was definitely a very promising first game,” he said.
Watching it unfold was so much different than watching Johnson suffer at Stanford in the 2019 opener. A former top recruit who’d transferred from Clemson, he was supposed to step in, sprinkle some five-star dust on the offense and make it sing. Instead, he endured a nightmare. He was intercepted on his second throw, pulled from the game after three hopeless series and back in the fire only after an injury to backup T.J. Green. In the final minute, leading 10-7, the Cardinal sacked Johnson, forced a fumble and scored.
“He will get better,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said then. “I have great confidence in him.”
But by the finale of a 3-9 season, Fitzgerald turned to his fourth quarterback, Andrew Marty, to lead the team at Illinois. And then Fitzgerald signed Indiana graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey to steer the ship in 2020. Johnson receded into the background.
So when he won the job all over again in training camp, the news didn’t come with a feeling of permanence. Fitzgerald emphasized that Johnson was the starter “for the opener.” But it’s his gig now. It’s finally his time.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Johnson said.
On Northwestern’s opening series against the Spartans, Johnson stepped into a third-and-14 completion — with a pass rusher closing in — that went for 41 yards to Bryce Kirtz. Just like that, he had his best play as a Wildcat.
He topped that on the offense’s next possession, floating a gorgeous deep ball along the right sideline for a 47-yard gain by Stephon Robinson Jr. The deep strikes ended there, but Johnson settled into an efficient, confident performance that included fourth-down conversions and led to touchdowns on a night when shaky QB play probably would have meant getting shut out.
“If we’re going to draw a positive today, I thought I saw a lot of growth from Hunter,” Fitzgerald said.
Anyone who watched saw it. Anyone who wondered if Johnson had it in him had to be impressed.
And that’s a good start.