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Five takeaways from the 2021 Northwestern football season

Changes are clearly needed.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Following Northwestern’s 47-14 season finale shellacking at the hands of in-state rivals Illinois, the Wildcats’ season is officially done. It was an extremely disappointing year all around, with most still thinking in the preseason that the ‘Cats would at least be bowl eligible at this point in the season. However, that’s not the case, with NU finishing 3-9 and in last place in the Big Ten West. Here are five takeaways from not only Northwestern’s loss to Illinois, but their 2021 season as a whole.

There need to be coordinator/positional coach changes

There was expected to be a learning curve for the 2021 Northwestern defense. Simply replacing longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz would be no easy feat, but it appeared that Fitz had found a possible successor in former NFL defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.

O’Neil’s first season was, to put it simply, a disaster. The Big Ten’s best unit in 2020 became one of the nation’s worst in the blink of an eye. While this was in part due to the lack of returning production, for Northwestern to give up over 50 rushing yards more per game than the 13th best defense in the Big Ten is telling that something was not working. From *literally* the first play of the season, the unit’s lack of preparedness was glaring.

In order for Northwestern to dig out of the dumpster fire that was this season, there must be changes in leadership. The Wildcats held one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten and were the worst scoring offenses in the conference. Administration must be aggressive in identifying the problems within the coaching staff and making an effort to solve them.

Hilinski may not be what was promised

The offensive struggles in 2021 were sparked by issues behind center. The biggest disappointment at the quarterback position — out of a plethora of them — came from redshirt sophomore transfer Ryan Hilinski. Of the Hunter Johnson, Hilinski and Marty trio, he had the highest expectations coming into the season, but was second string in the season opener and when the time came, he did not produce much for the offense.

Out of the 176 passing attempts scattered throughout nine games, the former South Carolina quarterback completed 54% of his passes for 978 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions. He repeatedly missed receivers downfield and did not show much mobility. When he transferred, Hilinski was expected to be the signal caller for the next two-to-three seasons. Now, the future for the quarterback is unclear.

Evan Hull is a legitimate Big Ten running back

When starting running back Cam Porter was announced to have a season-ending injury before the season even started, there were questions about whether sophomore Evan Hull would be able to handle being the lead back. In hindsight, it’s safe to say that the Minnesota native silenced the doubters. Hull was the one of the lone bright spots that came from 2021, as he rushed for 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns in his debut as the full-time starter.

The Incredible Hull ranked sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards and many times carried the ‘Cats offense down the field single-handedly. With Porter coming back next season, Northwestern is set up to have two all-conference level players in the backfield.

Adetomiwa Adebawore is really, really good

Northwestern’s defense may have been a mess, but if there were a bright spot it would be Adebawore. The junior defensive end finished the year with 36 total tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, along with two forced fumbles. He was the most consistent source of pocket pressure for the ‘Cats and a clear leader on the defense.

Adebawore’s expansion from primarily being a run stopper to a plus pass-rusher provided the ‘Cats with a player who was a game wrecker at times. If Northwestern is to bounce back next season, it will need playmakers from all three levels to help with the development of younger players. Adebawore is just that on the defensive line, a group projected to lose Jeremy Meiser, Samdup Miller, Jeffery Pooler Jr. and Joe Spivak to graduation.

Expectations have been raised for Northwestern football

Following a 3-9 season in 2019, Fitz proclaimed that “this type of record will never happen again.” Now, Northwestern holds the same record just two seasons later, only the ‘Cats did it in worse fashion. In 2019, the season point differential was -87. In 2021, it was -149. In 2019, Northwestern had a solid defensive unit that kept them in games. In 2021, the defense was what ended games in the first quarter.

Fitz is one of the greatest coaches to ever grace Evanston. Yet, the same success that made him Northwestern’s savior has also made him subject to scrutiny. Having sporadic success mixed in with embarrassment has become stale. Fitz has created the expectation that Northwestern will be contenders in the Big Ten West every season, and the frustration seen from some of the fan base is telling that Wildcat faithful expects more from this program.