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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern breezes past Ohio behind strong rushing performance

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The Wildcats gained 373 yards on the ground en route to an easy win.

NCAA Football: Ohio at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Evanston, Ill. — In a solid yet unspectacular afternoon of football, the heavily-favored Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 0-1 B1G) defeated the Ohio Bobcats (0-4, 0-0 MAC) 35-6 in front of a student section filled with first-year, second-year and transfer students experiencing their first game at Ryan Field.

The quarterbacking situation for the ‘Cats remained a question until gametime. Hunter Johnson’s ineffectiveness and Andrew Marty’s injury late in last week’s contest at Duke placed the starting quarterback role in the hands of South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski, who started a game for the first time since 2019. He finished 12-of-20 with no touchdowns and no interceptions. On the ground, Northwestern rushed for 373 yards, including major contributions from Evan Hull (216 yards on 22 carries), Andrew Clair (71 yards on eight carries) and Anthony Tyus III (51 yards on 11 carries).

Chris Bergin led all defenders with 15 tackles, followed by Brandon Joseph and Coco Azema with 7 and 6 each.

For the Bobcats, starting quarterback Kurtis Rourke went 20-of-29 for 166 yards with one interception. He left the game near the end of the fourth quarter with a lower-body injury. Armani Rogers also received some snaps behind center.

The Wildcats won the toss and deferred to the second half, giving the Bobcats the ball to start the game. Ohio drove into the Northwestern red zone thanks to three consecutive third-down conversions on passes from Rourke, but two Bobcat penalties stalled the drive, and Tristan Vandenburg missed the ensuing 31-yard field goal attempt. The ‘Cats responded with a three-and-out after a Malik Washington offensive pass interference penalty negated a possible third-down conversion.

Kurtis Rourke fumbled on the first play of the Bobcats’ next drive. The ‘Cats captured the momentum in response, with a 17-yard rushing touchdown from Evan Hull capping an eight-play, 59-yard drive to put the ‘Cats up 7-0 with 3:38 remaining in the first frame.

After another stalled Bobcat drive, Evan Hull proceeded to break through for a 90-yard touchdown run, extending the ‘Cats’ lead to 14-0. The Northwestern defense then forced another stop as the second quarter began. The offense, however, failed to extend the lead despite driving to the Bobcat one-yard line, a result of a false start on fourth-and-goal and a missed 24-yard chip shot from Charlie Kuhbander.

Regaining possession at its own 20, OU drove into Northwestern territory for the fourth time in the half, once more failing to score yet pinning the ‘Cats at their own one-yard line. The ‘Cats went three-and-out for the first time in the game, a lucky result given that Hilinski nearly threw a pick-six on a pass dropped by Ohio safety Jett Elad on third down. A 32-yard run from Andrew Clair pushed Northwestern back into the red zone on its next possession, but the ‘Cats failed to punch the ball into the end zone. A 24-yard field goal from Kuhbander, this time through the uprights, extended NU’s lead to 17-0 with 54 seconds remaining in the half, a score which would hold as both teams returned to their locker rooms.

Despite allowing Ohio into its territory five times and struggling to tackle throughout the first half, Jim O’Neil’s unit embraced the “bend-but-don’t break” mantra and kept the Bobcats off the scoreboard. Big plays from Hull and Clair saw the ‘Cats gain 226 yards on the ground, compared to 73 in the air, as Hilinski completed only three throws with gains over ten yards in a somewhat conservative passing game.

Neither team could score in the third quarter, as they traded punts. Ohio opted to insert Rogers in place of Rourke for its first series. Rourke returned for the Bobcats’ next possession, another Ohio drive stalling at midfield thanks to a third-down sack from Jeremy Meiser.

The ‘Cats concluded the third quarter with another lengthy drive defined by some solid running from Hull and Tyus and a generous defensive pass-interference call in the red zone. Once more, the ‘Cats could not add six, as Kuhbander knocked in a kick from 26 yards out. The ‘Cats led 20-0 in the opening seconds of the final quarter.

On Ohio’s next drive, Brandon Joseph collected his first interception of the season off of a Meiser-tipped pass from Rourke, Ohio’s second turnover of the day. The ‘Cats responded with a turnover of their own, a botched handoff from Hilinski to Clair. After a forced turnover on downs, Northwestern rode the Wildcat formation to a Tyus touchdown with six minutes remaining in the game. Stephon Robinson scored on a jet sweep for the two-point conversion to extend the lead to 28-0.

The defense forced another turnover when Bryce Jackson grabbed a ball juggled by Ohio receiver Ty Walton. Sophomore quarterback Carl Richardson entered the game and drove the ‘Cats down the short field for another touchdown, this time from sophomore running back Jake Arthurs. On the final play from scrimmage of the game, Ohio’s Armani Rogers rushed for a 55-yard touchdown to break up the shutout and give the game its final score of 35-6.

Offensively, Northwestern relied on its ground attack, accentuated by Hull’s landmark game-high 216 yards on 22 carries. The focus on the rushing attack did not necessitate Hilinski to make any plays. His unremarkable stat line came with solid game management and few mistakes. Bryce Kirtz and Robinson spearheaded Northwestern’s receiving corps with five and four catches apiece for 28 yards and 44 yards respectively.

Northwestern’s defense struggled to tackle at times but ultimately held firm against an ineffective Ohio attack. After yielding three straight third-down conversions on the Bobcats’ first drive, the ‘Cats did not allow any more for the rest of the game. If not for the game-closing TD, the ‘Cats would have forced their first shutout since November 18, 2017, when they beat Minnesota 39-0.

Northwestern will travel to Lincoln next Saturday to face Nebraska as it enters into the bulk of its Big Ten schedule.