There was nothing special about Northwestern’s offense in 2020. In fact, by most metrics and raw statistics it was well below average.
Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings (widely accepted as the best one-number metric in college football) ranked Northwestern’s offense a mere 93rd out of 127 FBS teams at the end of the season. It doesn’t help that S&P+ factors in the performance of previous years for consistency, as the 2019 Northwestern offense was an all-time deadweight anchor dragging the 2020 ‘Cats to the bottom as much as humanly possible.
Either way, it’s pretty clear that NU once again succeeded because of their defense last year, and while it certainly wasn’t in spite of the offense, one side of the ball clearly superseded the other. The defense will likely be powerful yet again, but without having the cornucopia of returning seniors this time around, the offense likely needs to take a step forward if this team wants to compete for the West division title yet again.
That requires improvement from every position group on the offensive side of the ball, but most importantly, that’s going to require Ryan Hilinski to be better than Peyton Ramsey. Let’s see how feasible that is.
Appearing in 11 games for the 2019 South Carolina Gamecocks, a true freshman Hilinski threw for 11 touchdowns in contrast to five interceptions while only averaging 5.8 yards per attempt on a 58.1% completion rate. That, on the surface, is —
Though as always, context is important. In this instance, the context is that the 2019 South Carolina team was vastly overpowered by the majority of their opponents. In particular, the jump from offensive line acumen Hilinski should experience in transitioning from SC to NU might break his brain, similar to way his 2019 line almost got him killed on multiple occasions. The individual guards and tackles got put through the washing machine during one-on-one matchups, and against schemed blitzes the structure would come crashing down from multiple areas.
Egad. Hilinski is very much a negative when it comes to his running ability (something that will be touched on more later), and his recognition of pressure isn’t always great, but what on earth is he supposed to do there?
This was what his protection looked like only two seconds after the ball was snapped and against a simple four-man rush.
And here they are after an outside blitz from the Gators — two on the ground, one in retreat after getting roasted, a running back who was overwhelmed, No. 76 just taking a chill pill while his QB gets waxed and good ol’ No. 60 holding the lone successful block on the play.
To counteract these shortcomings, SC spammed the living daylights out of quick swing passes, short slants and out routes to get the ball out as quickly as possible and avoid Hilinski getting planted into the ground 50 times a game. It worked out decently well, as Hilinski displayed good short-range placement and accuracy on those routes, getting the ball to the receiver on time and to their hands.
This three-play sequence vs. Texas A&M stuck out, with Hilinski making the correct decision at the correct time on each play. The first one is a check down to his half back after reading that the slant was covered. The second is a quick out to his tight end the moment he breaks out of his route with an advantage. And just for kicks, the third is a gorgeous floating lob to the end zone that probably should have been hauled in his receiver + have earned a defensive pass interference flag from the official.
While Hilinski’s urgency and knack for making quick reads generally falls onto the positive side of the spectrum, he can get too locked in and pre-mediated on these quick check options, failing to read or progress through a defense in favor of rolling with his first instincts.
In the following clip, A&M shut down this third down attempt with a blitz and straight man, as they seemed pretty confident that Hilinski wasn’t going anywhere else besides the slant option.
TAMU was also comfortable in doing this because Hilinski is unbelievably one dimensional as a quarterback. He is an objectively bad runner as a projected starting passer for a Power Five team. He’s not good at creating under pressure. He struggles to escape the pocket for scrambles. Attempts to shift or shake rushers usually fail, and he can get flustered rather easily when he sees a defender in his face.
You saw that failure to escape in the earlier clip vs. Tennessee where he get caught up to in no time after his O-Line failed him. You could see the uncomfortability to deal with pressure in that above clip where he lobs a duck off his back foot under pressure (Hilinski often defaults to throwing off his back foot whenever faced with a tight pocket at the release point).
To be fair, Hilinski is aware of his own shortcomings. This clip had me rolling laughter to no end, as he slides short of the first down vs. Appalachian State despite having a blocker in front and being fully capable of reaching the out of bounds line just past the marker.
He seems so terrified of running in the open field that he’s just hoping to go down as soon as possible. Hilarious.
One thing Northwestern didn’t have a ton of in 2020 with Ramsey was deep shots through the air. Here at Inside NU, we tracked Peyton’s Passes throughout the season and had him at only seven attempts all season with over 30 air yards, and he only completed a single one of those attempts.
Hilinski had a few more instances of deep attempts on his 2019 film, but man oh man I have some concerns about the accuracy. He has the arm strength to get it there no doubt. Funnily enough, most of his misses are overthrows to the pass-catchers streaking down the field. That’s good that he can get it there, but watch some of these throws, and it’s pretty clear that the thought process here amounts to “Let me wind up and chuck this thing as far as possible” type tosses.
Even when he did supposedly succeed on some shots down the field, the decision making was just bad. This was one of his two touchdowns vs. Alabama.
Six points — great! But what on earth was that decision??? That was a pure YEET into double coverage from Hilinski that would be picked off 99 times out of 100, it just happened that he spun right on this round at the table.
There’s definitely potential that he could improve at this. He’s displayed touch on a number of different throws, and he most certainly has the arm talent necessary to toss deep dimes when needed. If he was capable of this following play on one out of every five long throws, then it’s far from a fruitless hope.
Hilinski also is a bit of a mid-range maestro when given time, being able to fit off speed throws with touch through clogged windows. Usually he’s given oodles of time on these completions, but he even had a beautiful fourth and one pass while getting flattened vs. Missouri at the end of this compilation.
In conclusion, I’m confident that Hilinski and the quarterback situation he is going to define in 2021 will not be a 2019-esque disaster. However, I do not think he is a better quarterback than Ramsey was at this point in time. While Hilinski might have the slightest of edges as a natural throwing talent, the steep difference in duel threat ability gives Peyton the edge in my mind.
Of course, Ramsey was a far more experienced as a college quarterback by the time he reached Evanston than Hilinski was, so in time the South Carolina transfer may catch up on the development curve.
It’s perfectly okay to expect great things out of Hilinski in 2021, and I believe he’ll be a perfectly viable Big Ten starter for the entirety of the season, barring injury. But after my evaluation of his film, some tempering of all conference aspirations might be in order.