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Northwestern starts hot, regresses late as offense sputters against Indiana State

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The Wildcats gained 172 yards in the first quarter, but only 103 thereafter.

NCAA Football: Indiana State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Hull stepped to the podium with a certain sense of swagger.

When asked about the impact of his 119 yard, two touchdown day on his confidence, he cracked wise. “Well, I know what 20 carries feels like now,” he said through a wide grin.

Indeed, Hull had a busy day, toting the rock 23 times throughout Northwestern’s 24-6 victory over Indiana State, with 10 carries in the first quarter alone for 71 yards and a score. The redshirt sophomore led the Wildcats’ pack of running backs, featuring himself, true first-year Anthony Tyus III and Bowling Green grad transfer Andrew Clair, as the group shouldered the load of NU’s offensive production against their FCS foe, the Sycamores.

As a whole, the group put up 212 rushing yards on 36 carries and rushed for more than 10 yards on nine separate plays, a far cry from the one run over 10 that they collectively produced in the season opener against Michigan State. Hull discussed the importance of getting back on the right track against Indiana State, the first of three consecutive non-conference opponents for the Wildcats.

“It’s everything,” he said. “As far as the run game goes, we’re gonna be running basically the same things pretty much every week. So it comes down to the fundamentals and knowing your keys and knowing your reads. Building momentum and building that kind of drive going into each and every week is really important.”

Coming off of a 38-21 trouncing at the hands of the Spartans, the Wildcats succeeded in righting the ship enough to get the win and very well may have set themselves on the right track for the weeks ahead. Still, a lack of consistency during the game kept the ‘Cats from truly dominating their FCS opponent. In failing to fully capitalize on numerous opportunities from great field position, NU’s efforts to reset the narrative on its season flopped.

“We’re far from where we need to be,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. “That’s probably what’s most exciting to me as this group’s coach, that we can be so much better. We just gotta commit to that, and I know the guys will.”

The Wildcats certainly got off to a start that indicated the potential for a beatdown.

At the end of the first quarter, they led 14-0 after two touchdown drives in which, behind six of the aforementioned carries of 10+ yards, they marched 75 and 92 yards, respectively, down the field to score six. When the whistle blew on the first frame, they’d outgained the visitors from Terre Haute by 119 yards and converted on all three of their third down attempts.

From that point forward, though, yardage and first downs were hard to come by, as the Wildcats picked up only 103 yards in the second, third and fourth quarters while going 2-for-10 on third down. Fitzgerald credited shifts in the Sycamores’ defensive strategy for his team’s latter-game offensive woes.

“I think that there were a lot of different schematics that they were running,” he said. “I gotta watch the tape before I can tell you exactly what it was, but it just looked like we were a guy away from having big plays, and that’s the thought process of the defense that they’re running.”

Fitzgerald noted that, after running a four-down defensive formation in 2019, the last time they played a full season, the Sycamores put forth a three-down scheme in 2021. This shift in setup limited NU’s frame of reference to Indiana State’s week one win over Eastern Illinois, and consequently made it harder to execute offensively. Hull, too, echoed the sentiments of his coach.

“It was a challenge, honestly,” he said. “We were looking through the archives trying to find things that would help us just gain an edge. We put a lot of our stock into the last game that they played against Eastern Illinois to kinda get an idea of how they were gonna play us.”

For all of the offense’s ups and downs, NU’s defensive and special teams units were solid for nearly the entire day. With veterans Adetomiwa Adebawore and AJ Hampton each having big days to lead the way, the defense forced punts to end Indiana State’s first nine drives before allowing a touchdown on ISU’s last offensive series of the game. Kicker Charlie Kuhbander recovered from his opening night woes and hit his lone attempt from 47 yards out, tying his career long kick in the process. Punter Derek Adams averaged a net of 43.8 yards on four punts, while Northwestern’s punt returners, bolstered by big runbacks from Brandon Joseph and Ray Niro III, combined for 166 punt return yards, setting a new school record for the highest such mark in a single game.

With all of the great field position that resulted, though, the NU offense did stunningly little. On five separate occasions from the second quarter to the end of the game, the Wildcats inherited the ball inside the Indiana State 35-yard line. Through a combination of penalties and offensive line failures that led to plays going backwards, those five drives resulted in only 10 total points for Northwestern.

“When we come into the huddle and we’ve got that momentum going already, it’s so important to capitalize on it,” Hull said. “Sometimes, we didn’t really get it, but that’ll be one thing that we really try and buckle down on coming into next week.”

The ever-optimistic Fitzgerald, while recognizing the shortcomings in converting offensively, refused to let the lack of points overshadow his appreciation for the units that helped put the Wildcats in great position to score.

“It was disappointing,” he said of the missed opportunities. “It changes the complexion of the game. But I’m proud of the way our defensive responded, and I’m really proud of the way our special teams played today.”