It seems like a little bit of rest and regrouping is just what this Northwestern football team (3-3, 1-2 B1G) needed to finally piece together a conclusive identity. While there were a few missed opportunities and tackles in the backfield, the Wildcat offense managed to put a decent number of points on the board and the defense looked like a completely different unit in Fitz and Co.’s first conference win of the season.
The passing game
One would think the pre-game news that Bryce Kirtz and Trey Pugh would not be seeing the field would discourage Fitz from utilizing the passing game — at least that’s what Rutgers thought before Stephon Robinson Jr. picked up an easy 47-yard pass on the second play of the game. From that point on, it seemed like every available receiver on the team ended up in Bajakian’s rotation. Sophomore tight end Marshall Lang dipped his toe in the ring for his second career touchdown on a two-yard throw toward the end of the second half, and sophomore receiver Jack Moses saw the field for a few snaps as well.
The real stars, though, were Robinson Jr., Malik Washington and the recently activated JJ Jefferson. Washington burned the Rutgers secondary on a 64-yard touchdown reception, putting the ‘Cats on the board first for a change. Robinson appeared comfortable on his routes and was impressive in his ability to win balls in one-on-one coverage, especially by catching balls thrown into tight windows. The grad transfer finished with 115 yards while Washington pulled in 84 himself and Jefferson followed with 44 yards.
The Northwestern defense looked like a completely different team than the one who faced the Cornhuskers two weeks ago. The ‘Cats’ front seven were nearly unrecognizable as they were successful in completely shutting down Rutgers’ run game in the first half, allowing only 38 rushing yards. Both the defensive line and linebacking corps looked more aggressive than they have all season. Bryce Gallagher emerged as a key part of the defense, finishing with 10 total tackles and one sack, followed closely by fellow LB Chris Bergin who tacked on nine total tackles himself. Additionally, Adetomiwa Adebawore continued to impress as the motor of Jim O’Neil’s defensive line, collecting seven total tackles, four of which were for loss, along with one sack as well.
Altogether, the Wildcats’ defense allowed only 63 rushing yards, a bright spot for their defensive play this season. While Rutgers’ offense isn’t nearly as impressive as other Big Ten teams Northwestern is slated to face, the two weeks off definitely gave the ‘Cats the time they needed to start making their way toward meeting those lofty preseason expectations.
So far this season it’s been all eyes on Evan Hull, but today it was the Andrew Clair show. The transfer from Bowling Green had a respectable 45 yards in a first half dominated by the passing game, especially when it became clear that Hull was not going to be of much use agains the Rutgers defensive line. Though the o-line had a little bit of difficulty creating distinguishable holes, Clair had a bit of an edge in his reads and was able to find his way through the line just enough to push the ‘Cats upfield when needed as well as cement the win with a late fourth quarter touchdown. The grad transfer finished with 63 yards on 13 carries in his best game at Northwestern to date.
Honorable Mentions: Underclassmen, the alumni band, Bryce Gallagher, talent from the transfer portal
Executing open plays
While the successful passing plays remain a highlight, Ryan Hilinski did have several open opportunities that could have been the difference between a close game and an outright beatdown. He completed 18-of-33 attempts for 267 yards and two touchdowns, which isn’t a terrible stat-line besides the fact that it could have been much, much better. Not every missed opportunity was Hilinski’s fault, however. Robinson Jr. allowed one of the quarterback’s better throws to fall right through his hands in what could have increased NU’s lead to two scores in the third quarter. If there are going to be chances for Northwestern to pull ahead in games, they can’t afford to make sloppy mistakes.
Even though the rest of O’Neil’s defense seemed well-rested, Cam Mitchell looked like he could have used a few extra hours of sleep today. The cornerback was completely burned on Rutger’s first scoring play by Bo Melton, who had ample room in the endzone for an easily preventable toe-tap catch. Additionally, Mitchell missed way too many open tackles in one-on-one situations for a player trusted with a job as important as covering the backfield. Thankfully, the sophomore was continuously bailed out by his teammates, but his lack of precision and aggression in the backfield was worrisome.
Honorable Mentions: Missed pass interference calls, referees in general, empty end-zone seats :(