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Hilinski’s Heaves, Week Five: Few points scored but lots to like

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Northwestern had far from a banner day on either side of the ball, but the sophomore QB flashed his potential.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Let’s face it: from a Northwestern side of things, there’s little to want to remember about the Wildcats’ 56-7 drubbing in Lincoln against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on October 2. In their first taste of Big Ten West action, the Wildcats looked totally outmatched and were outclassed in a showing that Pat Fitzgerald will want to forget forever.

On the offensive side of the ball, NU posted just one touchdown: a 28-yard pass from Ryan Hilinski to Stephon Robinson Jr. in the first quarter. Given that the ‘Cats scored just one time — a number that’s disappointingly low, even against a stingy Husker defense — you may be wondering if there’s anything that can be remotely gleaned from this game on offense.

The good news? Even though Mike Bajakian’s unit got in the end zone just once, Hilinski had a solid game, showcasing quick decision-making, touch, accuracy and arm strength — albeit with some minor areas for improvement.

Before looking at the film, let’s analyze Hilinski in terms of his air yard distribution.

The first element to note is that Hilinski generally had success when throwing deep — more on that in a moment — by going 2/4 for 60 yards and a touchdown on passes over 20 yards.

Further, it’s promising that Hilinski missed few throws in the short range (0-9 yards), yet tossing 21 balls so few yards in the air doesn’t seem ideal given Hilinski’s skillset — and it rarely generates chunk plays, either.

One such facet of Hilinski’s attributes that really flashed against Nebraska was his ability to make fast reads, the majority of which were correct.

Right from the get-go, the sophomore transfer seemed apt to let it fly just seconds after the snap. In this case, Hilinski slings the rock to Robinson on the outside to gain a first down. Hilinski’s mechanics are a bit strange during this throw — it almost seems as if he’s bailing away from pressure — but the ball is placed well nonetheless.

On the ensuing play, Hilinski did much of the same. Granted, this play is a designed screen, but the gunslinger executes the play action and already has his feet, hips and shoulders in position to throw it on the money to Bryce Kirtz. This concept isn’t the simplest, especially for a QB in his second start with a new team, but Hilinski performs it seamlessly.

During this first down, Hilinski performs a swift two-step dropback and quickly fires a ball with outside leverage to Marshall Lang, but Lang can’t bring it down. All in all, Hilinski’s football acumen was highlighted by fast processing and consequent smart reads.

All day, the 12 to 5 connection was humming, largely due to several perfect deep balls exchanged from the transfers. In a matter of two plays, Northwestern marched 60 yards thanks to Hilinski’s deep throwing skill.

In the first, Hilinski stands strong in the pocket and launches a rainbow that hits Robinson in-stride. It simply can’t be done much better than this.

Seconds later, the dynamic duo followed it up with an encore. Yet again, Robinson gains ground on his defender, and Hilinski hits his favorite target with the launch codes. Hilinski doesn’t even step into this throw — one that travels 28 yards in the air — but looks like he’s simply playing catch.

The deep ball isn’t the only thing that Hilinski had working. Watch here as the California native beautifully flutters a pass to Malik Washington while backtracking and nearly throwing off of his back foot.

Fundamentally, this may have been Hilinski’s best pass of the day. Inside the red zone, Robinson runs a sluggo, yet the cornerback is plastered with him. No trouble for Hilinski, who places the pass perfectly on Robinson’s outside hip, enabling him to make a tumbling catch. Tremendous poise and anticipation from Hilinski, not to mention a testament to the chemistry between the QB and WR.

I’ve already alluded to it, but time and time again, Hilinski’s cannon of an arm was unleashed.

Take this 9-yard completion to Robinson on second down late in the first quarter. Hilinski readjusts his platform and almost twists his shoulders before performing a bit of a hop-step. Even then, Hilinski shoots a missile over the middle to the ‘Cats’ leading receiver. This is almost a Patrick Mahomes-esque play — well, the Mahomes that we’re all used to, as opposed to the one that played against the Bills this past Sunday night.

The same can be said about this strike to Lang. Hilinski reaches the top of his drop, sets his feet and uncorks a ball with superb zip to prevent defenders from closing in.

At times, though, Hilinski can put too much velocity on throws, as he does here on a ball that gets away from the QB and ends up well over the head of Trey Pugh.

Moreover, Hilinski showcased some nimbleness and mobility in the pocket on occasion. The 6-foot-3 man under center is not known to be the most majestic runner — more on that here — but he’s certainly capable of evading rushers and extending plays when needed to.

With under a minute left in the first half, Hilinski readjusts the pocket by stepping up and avoiding the converging rushers. From there, he keeps his feet moving and makes a bit of a sliding pass to Robinson, who does the rest as he is wont to do.

Even though the game was largely out of hand by this point, Hilinski continued to battle. Once again, he steps forward and throws a perfect ball to the sideline in spite of the defender — who had actually bulldozed Peter Skoronski — having his arm draped on Hilinski’s left shoulder.

While Hilinski was largely quite good, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a few missed throws.

Northwestern’s QB may have been getting desperate by this point in the game. Regardless, Hilinski needs to be keenly aware of the ranging linebacker and was lucky not to have this one plucked out of the air.

Other times, Hilinski threw low passes, such as on these two plays.

These next three points are somewhat picky, but they are corrections that would help both Hilinski and Northwestern in the long run.

On this first play, Hilinski has a relatively clean pocket but can’t find anybody open wearing white and black. Granted, there is substantial late pressure due to tight end Charlie Mangieri getting walked back, but Hilinski should attempt to extend the play and roam to the right rather than throw a wayward pass while still in the tackle box. As you may have expected, this was called intentional grounding.

Additionally, on this pitch and catch with Robinson, Hilinski’s timing is off by a fraction of a second. The throw is outstanding, but if Hilinski had put the ball on Robinson just a hair sooner, this likely would have been a catch.

Finally, Hilinski should work on mitigating a minor fumbling problem. The NU QB was struck with two fumbles on the day, one of which came on a wonky handoff. All in all, Hilinski should strive for better ball security when being dragged down or hit from opposing rushers.

Overall, I think Hilinski’s performance was lost in the shuffle of the game’s extraordinarily ugly result, and that’s understandable. Nonetheless, Pat Fitzgerald’s former third-string quarterback had a good showing against a tough defense in front of 90,000 blaring fans. That’s a win in and of itself.

Hilinski was particularly impressive in the first half, going 16/21 for 189 yards and a touchdown. It is discouraging that he and the ‘Cats couldn’t piece together another scoring drive, but that was largely due to fumbles and and a lack of third down conversions rather than poor play from the man at the helm of Bajakian’s offense.

Looking ahead to Rutgers and beyond, Hilinski has solidified himself as Northwestern’s starting quarterback (that is, barring an unthinkably bad outing as Hunter Johnson had in Durham). The former Gamecock portrayed a myriad of traits that should make him a plus starter for Fitzgerald in 2021 and the future — namely his mental acuity, arm strength, touch and deep ball accuracy — and is capable of tearing it up if he’s allowed to grip it and rip it rather than simply manage games.

Even if Northwestern continues its shockingly subpar play for the rest of this season, those donning purple and white should continue to monitor Hilinski’s growth in Bajakian’s offense and should, truthfully, remain optimistic about NU’s quarterback situation going forward.