This past Saturday, Northwestern looked much more like, well, Northwestern. Thanks to a superb defensive effort — indisputably, the best complete game from Jim O’Neil’s squad thus far — and an offense that got out to an early advantage, the Wildcats rolled to a 21-7 victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
It should come as little surprise that the focal point of NU evening out its 2021 record was quarterback Ryan Hilinski. To build off his solid performance against Nebraska — more on that in my prior breakdown — the sophomore gunslinger continued to showcase a strong arm and quick decision-making. At the same time, Hilinski looked less polished against Rutgers, and it nearly cost the ‘Cats on multiple occasions.
Per tradition, here is the charting of Hilinski’s air yards on each of his passing attempts.
In Lincoln, Hilinski thrived on throws over 20 yards, going a perfect 4-for-4. That wasn’t as much of the case back in Evanston, as the transfer had just one pass completed for more than 19 yards. In fact, the air yards chart doesn’t fully reveal the accuracy with which certain throws were made or portray a full field distribution of Hilinski’s throws — more on those concepts later.
Like last week, Hilinski’s howitzer of a right arm shone through.
On this 3rd and 5 with just under six minutes remaining in the second quarter, Hilinski effortlessly uncorks this strike to Jacob Gill. The velocity allows him to hit Gill in stride and, most importantly, prevent the defensive back from knocking it free. Here’s to a (questionable) new set of downs.
Just two plays later, Hilinski guns a fastball to J.J. Jefferson after a play-action fake, placing the ball perfectly on a line. Throws like this — over the middle and with adequate protection — are where Hilinski is at his best.
Another promising element of Hilinski’s game was his ability to throw on the run. During this boot, Hilinski glides to his strong side before nonchalantly launching a dart to Jefferson. If this ball leaks even a tad too far, Rutgers DB Robert Longerbeam likely would have gotten his mitts on it.
The former Gamecock executes a throw on the run even more seamlessly here. Hilinski takes the snap, rolls to his right and slings it to Stephon Robinson Jr. with just enough speed and precision to eschew Longerbeam. This might have been Hilinski’s most exceptional throw all day.
Hilinski’s deep ball, too, generally continued to possess superb touch and arc, enabling his skill position players to effectively track the ball — well, at least in theory.
This 2nd & 7 featured the best protection from Northwestern offensive line’s all game, and Hilinski capitalizes on it by gathering his feet and dialing up a long ball to Robinson. Despite the pretty throw, the fellow transfer wideout is unable to haul it in — even studs make mistakes once in a while.
Across the games of Hilinski that I’ve studied so far, his comfort in utilizing ball fakes, misdirections and even RPOs has been apparent.
In this play, Hilinski correctly reads the SAM linebacker who is sucked up by the RPO. From there, the QB fires a throw over the middle to Malik Washington, who puts on a dazzling display and chugs in for six. Even though he has little experience in Mike Bajakian’s offense, Hilinski doesn’t get overwhelmed by lots of moving parts and almost always makes quick, correct reads on such concepts.
For all that Hilinski did well, there was definitely some regression.
A particular area of concern was that Hilinski’s missed throws, though he wasn’t always penalized for such infractions.
On Northwestern’s second play from scrimmage, Robinson is wide open along the right sideline and should have coasted into the end zone. However, Hilinski throws a pass with far too much air under it, creating a more difficult reception than necessary.
Moreover, in the third quarter, Hilinski underthrows Robinson — running a slot fade — once again, as the 5-foot-10 wide receiver has to play much taller than his frame and haul in a circus catch. One could argue that this ball is decently placed since it gives Robinson an apt chance to make a play on the ball, but this throw should ideally be more towards the boundary so that Robinson can jump for it while already having leverage.
I detailed Hilinski’s best throw of the afternoon several paragraphs ago, but this was easily the antithesis. With 1:32 left in the first half, Northwestern had a chance to drive downfield and bolster its 7-point lead. However, this ball from Hilinski is angled far too wide and fails to hit a wide open Robinson, leaving a plethora of yards on the field.
Speaking of which, for every sparkling play that the transfer tandem successfully makes, there are also attempts that demonstrate their lack of chemistry, such as this third down. Robinson runs an in-breaking route three to four yards beyond the sticks, but Hilinski expects his receiver to dash much farther down the field. Plays of this caliber are to be expected, though, as the two are continuing to learn and evolve in a new system with few collective games under their belts.
It’s also imperative to stress that Hilinski’s mechanics remain problematic. On certain instances, NU’s man under center can operate fine when throwing off of his back foot, relying on pure arm strength such as during this completion to Washington.
At the same time, Hilinski’s awkward throwing motion can indubitably lead to trouble.
Early in the first quarter and already in plus territory, Hilinski cooks up a deep shot to Robinson. Despite having a decent amount of time to throw, Hilinski immediately backtracks and almost undersells this ball to Robinson, causing the former Jayhawk to have to make a highly contested catch attempt. If Hilinski had stepped into this throw more, he could have positioned it more towards Robinson’s outside hip or shoulder.
Even though Hilinski has all day to let it fly on this play, he becomes jelly-legged and slings and extremely dangerous pass to Evan Hull, who runs a curl. Simply put, this ball needs to be put on Hull’s chest — otherwise, the defender has a chance for a pick-six by sitting on this short of a route.
Finally, in this instance, Hilinski gets a bit greedy, as he tries to play Hero Ball and underestimates the verticality of Rutgers DB Kessawn Abraham, who bats the pigskin away. This is a high difficulty throw, and there’s no need to make it given that there were safer (and probably more successful) reads to which Hilinski looked askance.
To proclaim that Hilinski was bad against Rutgers is a bit of a stretch: he continued to lead Northwestern’s offense downfield and avoided turnovers while also catching fire in the second quarter, as he went 7-for-7 on his attempts, and capped off the hot streak with his touchdown pass to Marshall Lang.
However, Northwestern’s quarterback has far more facets to improve upon compared to when he departed Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium. From several underthrows in which he was bailed out, to his quixotic mechanics or to numerous risky passes, Hilinski, Bajakian and Pat Fitzgerald will have plenty to highlight and correct after rewatching this game.
It felt like the ‘Cats’ offense was sleepwalking in the second half, and that’s not necessarily a coincidence. Hilinski posted just seven throws between the third and fourth quarters, with his final pass coming with over 10 minutes remaining in the game. That’s not exactly a concoction that will accumulate points, but it worked out in this instance.
If NU’s defense continues to fly around the ball and make stops, Hilinski will be cushioned by a sizable margin for error. But as early as this Saturday — when the Wildcats encounter the vaunted No. 6 Michigan Wolverines — Hilinski will have to hone in much more of his Nebraska form to keep Northwestern in the ballgame.