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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s first conference win of the season

Always count on Rutgers for a helping hand.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

After getting blown out in Lincoln two weeks ago, Northwestern came back home this weekend to take on Greg Schiano and Rutgers. The ‘Cats didn’t blow out the Scarlet Knights, but NU was the first and last team to score and, much unlike any contest against a Power Five opponent this year, its defense held its own in a big way, allowing only seven points the entire game. Here are five things we learned from a surprising win at Ryan Field.

Ryan Hilinski is probably another solid performance away from locking up the 2022 starting job

It’s admittedly a lame way to say it, but it’s the truth. Hilinski has now strung together three performances that have sequentially built up more good will for him amongst fans, media and (likely) the coaching staff.

Against Ohio, he simply had to be not Hunter Johnson to succeed. The game that shall not be named put in him in a situation so bad that a Lions fan might have offered him sympathy, and even then he sprinkled in some nice throws. And though he missed some open deep shots and only finished 18-for-33 on attempts against Rutgers, he was quite clearly the best quarterback on the field and unloaded plenty enough dimes for his team to secure the win. He’s no star, but he’s definitely a starter, and one who will keep the ‘Cats on track for the foreseeable future.

The Defense is not a lost cause

Very “you set the bar so low that it’s now beneath the floor” energy going on here, but major props to the defense for kicking Scarlet Knight butt all day on Saturday. Besides taking advantage of some Bo Melton vs Cam Mitchell matchups on its lone touchdown drive, it constantly felt as though Rutgers lacked any and all options as a means to scoring and moving the ball. RU averaged fewer than two yards per carry and a measly 5.0 passing yards per attempt, as Greg Schiano’s team was unwilling to take deep shots down the field and got swarmed in the short areas by the ‘Cats.

Of the now four Power Five opponents Northwestern has played, Rutgers’ Noah Vedral was the worst quarterback, and the skill position players weren’t explosive as those previously encountered by Jim O’Neil’s unit. However, it must be noted that in all three Wildcat victories this season, the defense has allowed only a touchdown in each, keying the path to the win. That doesn’t outweigh their failure in the losses, but it’s far from the black spot unit it’s been made out to be at times this season.

Adetomiwa Adebawore is cool and has the sauce


Okay, now that my fellow editors have removed the caps lock key via screwdriver (joke’s on you Dan, I added bold), I’ll hand out the more tame version of the Adebawore praise. On a stat line that included seven tackles (four of which were for loss), as well as a sack, two QB hurries and a forced fumble, the junior defensive lineman created rampant pressure on Vedral and the Rutgers offense all day. There have been complaints layered against all three position groups of the ‘Cats’ defense in 2021, but Adebawore has deservedly escaped most of the blame, and the case for him as the unit’s best player so far this season is far from an unreasonable one. It’s amazing that he still has another season ahead of him in purple and white. Enjoy his greatness while you can.

Running back optionality, baby

Many thought Cam Porter was destined to be the star of the show in 2021. That was probably placing too much weight on his hot streak of performances to close out the 2020 season, and it’s sad we’ll never know just how big his sophomore blow-up might have been, but his absence has not hung over this offense due to the backs filling in for him.

Evan Hull deservedly got his flowers for his methodical destructions of Ohio and Indiana State, but Andrew Clair once again should garner credit for his reliability after a 63-yard performance on Saturday. He lacks neither power nor speed, and has not impeded the offense’s progress in any ways. There’s a reason running backs don’t go so high in the NFL Draft anymore — there’s a lot of them out there that offenses can work with, and even without Porter, Northwestern appears to have two fine options carrying the load.

We can assume nothing about how the rest of the season will go

Kind of cheating because this takes into account the wildfire that was the Big Ten West this Saturday, but holy mother of Matt Alviti, did y’all see that?! Presumed favorite Iowa not only fell victim to classic Purdue dark magic, it got mollywhopped by a three-quarterback system at home while its own quarterback threw four interceptions and looked as functional as Northwestern’s Dine on Campus App. The same Nebraska that got tried for attempted murder of the Wildcats two weeks ago got bested by the same Mo Ibrahim-less Minnesota that couldn’t figure out Bowling Green. Wisconsin barely escaped getting “Army-ed” as all Power Five teams dread, and Illinois … well the Fighting Illini didn’t play this week, but you know they’re bad too.

Amidst all this chaos, Northwestern surprised most of its fans and the Inside NU staff with its controlling performance over still-bad-but-not-as-bad-as-before Rutgers, crossing the line of demarcation when it comes to competence. A third Big Ten West championship in four years is likely out of reach with the 1-2 hole the ‘Cats are currently in (which soon may be 1-3 with Michigan on the docket), but those five remaining games are all up in the air. There’s a world where the ‘Cats go 5-0 to finish out the year, and there’s also a winless, 3-9 finish in the pool of potential timelines. But the season has, at the very least, escaped the grim outlook of 2019, where every week until the final few was just 60 minutes of Northwestern fans waiting to see how bad their favorite team’s latest L was going to be.