There’s no better way to cap off a five game losing streak than doing it in the Wildcat Classic at Wrigley Field. With a respectable, hard-hitting Big Ten West opponent in Purdue coming to the North Shore, Northwestern couldn’t get it done due to problems that have been persistent themes all season — have no fear, there are still a few highlights to speak of. Here are five things we learned from the Wildcats’ 32-14 loss to the Boilermakers, dropping them to 3-8 on the season and 1-7 in conference play.
1. Charlie Kuhbander should be benched (again)
How many times do we have to say it? There comes a point when you have to admit that constantly going for it on fourth down instead of finding a viable replacement at kicker is unsustainable. For Kuhbander and the Wildcats, this point is far past due. Northwestern took three trips into disputable field-goal territory against the Boilermakers, only one of which ended in a (blocked!) field-goal attempt. The other two resulted in turnovers-on-downs on Purdue’s 29-yard-line and the 37-yard-line. Let’s say two of these three drives resulted in successful field-goals, and the score could have been an even 13-13 at half. There have been far too many opportunities for Northwestern to compete in games they have inevitably lost due to missed field-goals and or failed fourth down attempts spawned from a lack of faith in the team’s starting kicker, and no one in a conference as competitive as the Big Ten can afford to surrender scoring chances that easily.
2. Northwestern can’t afford any holes in the secondary
Albeit there is a certain level of sympathy one has to have for any secondary going up against David Bell and the Purdue receiving corps, it’s been a common theme this season that just one weak link in the Northwestern secondary can have a significant effect on the outcome of big games. AJ Hampton had his hands full with standout Boilermaker Milton Wright this weekend, but to let one receiver score three touchdowns and tack on 213 yards raises questions about Hampton’s ability to cover Big Ten opponents and coverage assignments decided on by the Northwestern coaching staff.
Covering Bell is a challenge in and of itself, and for Northwestern to not allow a score out of him was impressive. But taking out a player of his caliber defensively is going to leave other options like Milton open downfield, and the lack of preparedness for these matchups was abundantly clear and leaves another question-mark looming about the future of Jim O’Neil’s role in Evanston.
3. The QB carousel isn’t improving offensive efficiency
Fitz attributed his continued substitution strategy at the helm to confusing the Boilermaker defense, but at what cost? It’s clear neither Andrew Marty nor Ryan Hilinski is cut out to lead this particular Wildcat squad on their own, at least not with how the season has gone so far. However, looking at Purdue, Marty had only one incompletion before his first substitution, and though his first few drives were carried largely by the run game, he didn’t look out of shape. On Hilinski’s first two drives after being subbed in, he only had one incompletion as well and offensive production was stalled largely by the ineffectiveness of the offensive line to create holes for Hull. Neither was necessarily making any kind of glaring mistakes that a quarterback would typically be subbed out for in a singular QB system. Though the substitutions were clearly a part of Fitz’s game-plan, it’s possible that they killed some momentum that could have been created by having one constant leader on the field.
4. Evan Hull is the sole motor of this offense
It’s hard to argue against Hull as the runaway candidate for MVP this season, as the sophomore has stepped up in a major way and managed to provide a spark even in the most disappointing of seasons. Before this fall, Hull housed a total of just under 500 yards combined in his first two seasons as a Wildcat. Now, he is on the heels of the first 1,000 yard rushing season for a Northwestern back since Justin Jackson’s back in 2017. The Minnesota native led all rushers on Saturday with 96 yards despite the inefficiency of the Northwestern line to provide him with opportunities, though he still managed to average 3.8 yards per carry. The five-game losing streak might overshadow just what an impressive season it has been for the sophomore, but Hull has certainly been and continues to be a bright spot for the ‘Cats.
5. Football. At. Wrigley.
Other than the reverberating “how do you fit a football field on a baseball field” line of questioning, students, alumni and Wildcat fans galore showed out this weekend. With the good fortune of a relatively clear sky and temperatures hovering around a bearable 50 degrees, there’s no denying that Wrigley Field possesses an allure that few stadiums in America can vouch for. The student section looked and felt decently full, fans stayed for the majority of the game and, from what I could tell, people were having a good time despite the score. So, let’s look at it this way — a loss at the federal landmark is better than a loss pretty much anywhere else.