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Northwestern QB battle an ironic situation for Rutgers



Nov 5, 2022; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Brendan Sullivan (10) throws during the first half of the NCAA football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

While Rutgers has plenty of things to improve on ahead of the season opener against Northwestern, there is some uncertainty to deal with as well. For a program like Rutgers that almost annually has a quarterback competition, it’s ironic that it’s on the flip side of that coin this time around. Head coach Greg Schiano named Gavin Wimsatt the starting quarterback before training camp began. It was a bit of a surprise but made sense to bring stability to an offense that needs to make major strides during training camp. So far, the results in the preseason have been mixed. The Wildcats have a QB battle of their own during a tumultuous preseason that involves a hazing scandal and led to the firing of longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Last season, Northwestern was just 94th nationally in passing offense with 210.3 yards per game. Quarterback Ryan Hilinski played in eight games last season and starting six. He completed 55.8% of his passes for 1644 yards, 6 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Brendan Sullivan played in five games including starting four contests. He finished with an impressive 74.0% completion rate along with 589 passing yards, 4 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

While both are in the mix this fall, Northwestern added Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant in this spring. Bryant threw for 2,731 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while completing 61.2% of his passes in 2022. He suffered a season-ending foot injury after 11 starts in which he led Cincy to a 9-2 record and national ranking. They lost the final two games without him.

Interim head coach David Braun said at Big Ten Media Days in July that it would be an open competition in preseason camp. With the first media access given last week, it was confirmed that Northwestern is still searching for its starting quarterback.

Bradley Locker of Inside NU reported from practice on August 9, stating “Sullivan was the first quarterback to participate in each drill, from throwing on the run to screen training to deep ball accuracy to even end zone fades. From there, Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant followed suit, with Ryan Hilinski, Cole Freeman, Jack Lausch and first-year Aidan Gray partaking.”

Locker continued, “Based on their pecking order, share of reps and working with top receivers, it was apparent that Sullivan and Bryant are the team’s top two quarterbacks. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, especially given Hilinski’s past struggles — which also manifested themselves in training camp, as the grad student’s accuracy was inconsistent.”

Another strange wrinkle is all of this is that Northwestern offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian will be making the decision with the help of his new senior offensive analyst Sean Gleeson. The same Sean Gleeson who Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano fired last October midway following a 14-13 loss to Nebraska. Gleeson spent 2.5 seasons at Rutgers and recruited 4-star QB Gavin Wimsatt to the program.

Having Gleeson as a factor in this matchup certainly adds more drama. He’ll not only have input on who ultimately starts under center for Northwestern, but he’ll have plenty of intel to share on Wimsatt and the Rutgers defense after facing them everyday in practice.

In regard to the Northwestern QB decision, Braun said last week that he’s seen “really good things” from both Sullivan and Bryant. He also said, “Whoever earns that starting role is going to be the best version of himself, because he’s been pushed to compete.”

Whoever is taking snaps for Northwestern on September 3, Rutgers will rely on its veteran defense to make their season debut a struggle. Bryant can definitely throw the ball and has a lot of experience. He would add a dynamic in game planning, especially since he’s new to Northwestern’s roster.

No word on when Braun and Bajakian plan to make a decision on who will start at quarterback for Northwestern. Rutgers fans have plenty of experience going into the season opener not knowing who will be leading the offensive huddle. This time around though, it could be for the opponent.

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