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Where we are Wednesday: Regaining some hope

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Northwestern finally took a step in the right direction.

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

Momentum is something that’s seemingly evaded Northwestern football all season. It looked to be building in the second half of the Duke game, then fell apart with an injury to Andrew Marty. After a dominant win over Ohio, it seemed momentum was climbing again. It definitely didn’t, to say the least.

Now, the ‘Cats have secured their win conference win of the season. Maybe, just maybe, the momentum won’t come crashing down again?

After a 56-7 thrashing at Nebraska two weeks ago, Northwestern’s season appeared to have gone off the rails. Injuries ravaged the interior offensive line and the Cornhuskers exposed every last flaw in Jim O’Neil’s defensive scheme. And that was supposed to be one of the easier tests in the Big Ten West.

So yes, the first conference win of the year is momentum.

Northwestern didn’t just look like a competent Power Five team in its 21-7 victory over Rutgers, it looked like a good one. The porous defense turned stout and limited the Scarlet Knights to just 222 yards on the day. Only Indiana State’s offense has fared worse against the Wildcats in 2021.

The defensive resurgence started up front. The Wildcats racked up four sacks, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Bryce Gallagher and the rest of the front seven shut down the screen-heavy Rutgers offense with great tackling in the flats. And it stifled the Scarlet Knights on the ground.

The turnaround on defense was the biggest story of the day, and rightfully so. But the offense deserves a ton of credit as well. Mike Bajakian has struggled to establish a great balance between the ground game and the passing attack. That’s partially due to unfavorable game scripts. Even in its wins against Ohio and Indiana State, Northwestern heavily relied on Evan Hull to take the offense downfield. Overall, Bajakian called a good game against Rutgers.

Andrew Clair added a second layer to the running game that proved to be decisive. Rutgers contained Hull — who rushed for just 53 yards on 25 carries — but Clair took full advantage of the worn-down defense throughout the fourth quarter.

As the cold November games draw closer and the run game becomes more important, it’s encouraging to know that Clair is capable of spelling Hull for a drive or two. Clair was playing well coming in, but his efficiency on 13 carries (a season-high) proves that he can continue to produce with more volume.

Ryan Hilinski, while not perfect, led a passing attack that consistently moved the chains and kept the game in Northwestern’s control. His receivers gained separation from start to finish, and Malik Washington’s truck on his 64-yard first quarter score invigorated the offense with the big-play energy it so desperately needed.

It’s true that Hilinski didn’t look especially comfortable under pressure and missed a few throws. That’s also a reason to be slightly concerned, considering the Rutgers defense is middle-of-the-pack in the conference and the Wildcats still have to face the B1G’s top four defenses. However, Hilinski ultimately managed the game well and didn’t turn the ball over. If there’s anything Pat Fitzgerald needed from his quarterback, it was stability, and that was exactly what he got.

So the Wildcats played solid football against a conference opponent. But this was a bad, undisciplined Rutgers team that played itself out of the game. Horrible offensive playcalling and 11 penalties — including two delays of game at the hands of what was apparently college football’s 12th-worst student section — will not beat anyone.

The same question that lingered after the wins over Ohio and Indiana State continues to hang around: Can Northwestern put up a fight for four quarters against a good football team? A trip to the Big House and a nationally-televised game against No. 6 Michigan should finally provide the answer.

It will probably depend on the defense. With Bryce Kirtz now out for the year, O’Neil’s unit needs to build on its strong performance against Rutgers in order to give the offense a fighting chance. Michigan’s offense isn’t unstoppable. Neither is Purdue’s nor Minnesota’s. Spencer Petras of Iowa and Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz aren’t particularly scary. So the defense has a real opportunity to finally establish some consistency at the best possible time.

All you can really ask for is a close game on Saturday. With fans in attendance, the Wolverines haven’t lost a home game to any school besides Ohio State since 2017. But at least Northwestern has stopped playing its worst football as it enters the toughest part of its schedule. While a fourth win may not come this Saturday, the Wildcats can make bowl-eligibility seem feasible again if they show resiliency and avoid anything close to a repeat of the debacle in Lincoln.

There’s another chance, albeit a final one, to turn 2021 around. Is that cause for good, clean American fun? Considering what the Wildcats have already been through and the challenges staring them right in the face, enjoy the wins while you can.