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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s blowout loss to Minnesota

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There are only so many silver linings.

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

Like last week in Ann Arbor, there wasn’t a ton to be learned from Northwestern’s game against Minnesota. Most people anticipated a Gopher victory, but there was still plenty to draw about the state of the team and the direction of the program from the 27-point blowout win. Here are five things we learned from Northwestern’s 41-14 loss against Michigan that moved them to 3-5 on the year.

Andrew Marty should be the starting quarterback

As anyone who has watched Northwestern football in the past two weeks could tell you, Hilinski has been struggling. He hasn’t exactly had a lot to work with, as he’s had to deal with the loss of his two top receivers and an inconsistent offensive line, but he has still had trouble making accurate throws at relatively short distances.

Those troubles bled into today. In his limited action in the first half, Hilinski completed just one of six passes for a total of five yards. He was subsequently benched in the middle of a drive at the start of the second quarter for Andrew Marty, who proceeded to lead the team down the field for a touchdown. Even in that short drive, the senior showed off what separates himself from Hilinski: his ability to tuck and run. This brought an element to the offense that hasn’t really been present with either Hilinski or Hunter Johnson at QB1, and it showed in the second half. With Marty starting, Northwestern had just one three-and-out in four drives compared to Hilinski’s two in two completed drives.

This added dimension that Marty brings to the offense is now desperately needed. He’s not the most accurate passer, which he made clear yesterday, but at the same time, Hilinski hasn’t been any more accurate in recent weeks. Marty’s ability to open up the playbook and scramble when things fall apart is what this team needs if they’re going to find any sort of offensive success in the final weeks of the season.

JJ Jefferson needs to get as involved as possible

In the absence of Bryce Kirtz and Stephon Robinson Jr., the door was open on Saturday for the rest of the receiver room to get on the field and step up in their absences. Unfortunately, the passing game stuttered again, as Marty and Hilinski combined for under 100 yards through the air. One player that should make fans hopeful, though, is JJ Jefferson.

The senior — who retains one more year of eligibility due to COVID-19 — caught just one pass for 13 yards, but the stats don’t tell the full story. Jefferson saw more action on Saturday than in any other game this season as he found the ball in his hands a number of times from punt returns and run plays. With an increased role, he showed off his elusiveness and an ability to make defenders miss, a trait that has been absent from Northwestern skill players all year. The receiver did fumble a handoff that ultimately stalled a key drive, but his playmaking abilities with the ball in his hands provided a spark that Mike Bajakian needs to capitalize on.

The Houston native has struggled with injuries in recent years, but his performance today — albeit still limited and with mistakes — shows that he deserves to be a major piece in the offensive game plan in the weeks to come.

The outlook on the next few years looks bleak

The worst part about Northwestern playing subpar football? Northwestern playing subpar football in every aspect of the game. Outside of running back, every position group had its issues against Minnesota and throughout this season. Unlike 2019, the offense and defense seem to be equally bad. From the groups that are young, like the offensive line, or the groups with more experience, like the defensive line, there are more problems than one can count across every position. The younger players that have seen the field have struggled on both ends of the ball, and there really is no evidence that should make fans hopeful that things will be different next year.

The most critical issue is Northwestern’s ailing quarterback room. Hunter Johnson’s career in Evanston seems all but over, Hilinski has been disappointing and Marty’s time as a Wildcat is coming to a close. As it stands, there are no viable options for who will be QB1 in 2022, an issue that stands above the rest when analyzing the state of the program.

Evan Hull is legit

Before this season, the bulk of Hull’s time on the field had come against bad teams. As such, it was hard to predict the role he would play in the wake of Cam Porter’s absence announced before the season. However, apparent since the season opener against Michigan State, the sophomore has proven to be one of the lone bright spots of the team week in and week out. Hull had another effective game against Minnesota, running the ball 15 times for 107 yards and catching three passes for 15 yards and a touchdown.

He has seemingly taken over the running back by committee approach that Northwestern began the season with, as he ceded just two carries to Andrew Clair yesterday. He truly has found his groove in the thick of Big Ten play, zooming through holes and making sharp cuts to avoid defenders and find running lanes. The Minnesota native will hope to continue his strong season at home against a stout Iowa defensive front next Saturday under the lights.

What can go wrong will go wrong

A fumble returned for a touchdown on Northwestern’s first offensive possession of the game is telling of how this season has gone for the Wildcats so far. From having punts blocked to giving up touchdowns on the first play of the game, it almost seems that the ‘Cats are stuck in a horrific time loop, destined to make the same mistakes again and again. In stark contrast with the reputations often associated with Pat Fitzgerald’s teams, this year’s squad has not shown itself to be a well-coached, clean unit that does all of the little things right, an issue that was on display once again against the Gophers. Receivers dropped passes, players missed tackles and couldn’t wrap the Gophers up and the defense allowed a linebacker to score a 24-yard rushing touchdown (yes, UMN’s Derik LeCaptain was not an RB). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s causing all of this, but what seems to be a certainty is that it will keep happening until the end of this forgettable season.