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Even in a dominant win, big questions still remain for Northwestern

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While the ‘Cats may have looked impressive against Ohio, will they be able to hold their own against tougher competition?

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

Northwestern got up by two scores quickly on an opponent that was blatantly overmatched, saw its offense stall during both the second and third quarters, hammered the run game to no end and lost its chance to get a shoutout via surrendering a meaningless late touchdown.

You could show that paragraph to a Northwestern football fan who does not read Inside NU (if such a foolish person exists) and they wouldn’t be able to tell you if you were talking about the Indiana State game or the actual subject of yesterday’s story — Northwestern’s 35-6 win over the 0-4 Ohio Bobcats.

There really wasn’t too much more you could ask for from the ‘Cats. Sure, if Evan Hull didn’t explode for a 90-yard run, the non-garbage time offense would have been less than satisfactory. New starting quarterback Ryan Hilinski all but handed Ohio a pick-six that the Bobcats simply gave away with the drop. Even in a shutout, the defense faced bouts of missed tackling once again. However, the game was never in doubt, and NU looked like a competent team at the very least.

But does that change anything for the overall outlook of the season? In the ‘Cats’ losses against Duke and Michigan State, the game script they prefer — running the damn ball and playing prevent football to preserve the lead — wasn’t even within in the realm of possibility because they never had a lead to begin with. We know they can stonewall bad teams and ground-pound them to death, but that’s not an option when you’re trailing by 10 and need to air the ball out in order to catch up.

“I think we can improve so much,” said Hilinski in describing the team’s offense so far this season. “Even when we get near to the end of the season, we’re not going to be perfect, but we’re going to be damn near perfect because we’re going to keep working at it.”

The South Carolina transfer went 12-for-20 on passing attempts and compiled 88 total yards through the air, which on its surface is pretty bleak, but, again, must be considered alongside the context that NU wanted to run, run and run on every single snap they took.

That’s what sometimes expected of a Northwestern offense, though. So long as you’re not the sole reason that your team loses, you’ve done your job for a Pat Fitzgerald team.

“As long as we take care of the ball and take it away, we give ourselves an opportunity to win every game, and it’s typically been a recipe for success,” said the head coach, who’s certainly developed an identity for his team on the field over the years.

This offense seems like it won’t be 2019 levels of bad. There will be no stretches of six points in three game, nor jokes that forward passes only exist in the fourth dimension. That points the finger toward the defense, which again, was dominant today.

Star players such as Adetomiwa Adebawore (long may he reign), Brandon Joseph and Chris Bergin made huge plays left and right, and the 55-yard run from Ohio’s Armani Rogers on the game’s final play was more a funny story you tell your friends than something to actually be upset about.

But we’ve already seen this story not too long ago. The defense looked like it had things figured out following their smothering of the Indiana State offense, only to let Mataeo Durant run for over 100 yards and Gunnar Holmberg to throw for over 300 himself in a first half against Duke that could best be described as unforgivable for the ‘Cats. One-third of the way through the season, all that’s known about this defense is that they’re inconsistent and seem out-of-place against equal caliber talent.

“We’re playing as many guys as I’ve ever played, and our hope is that as time goes on throughout this year, we start to get more consistency in play,” said Fitzgerald. “That’s what our goal is as a coaching staff, and that’s what we’re going to work on and be tireless with.”

The good news is that the upcoming slate might be easier than in years past, as the Big Ten West (and, to be honest, the majority of the college football world) is non-sensical at best, objectively bad at worst. Graham Mertz is yet to recover from Mike Hankwitz posterizing him for all to see, resulting in a 1-2 Wisconsin team. Minnesota decided they were too good for dignity today, falling 14-10 against Bowling Green. Nebraska exists only to lose close games, never to win them. Illinois and Purdue spent three hours together and only found one touchdown, and even Io_a — a division favorite so clear that they’re practically transparent — was trailing a weak Colorado State team in the third quarter before coming back to win on Saturday afternoon.

Yet still, these are Big Ten teams, with Power Five linemen who won’t serve as mere blocking sleds for the Trench ‘Cats. Either the passing game needs to improve in a way that makes comebacks more viable, or the defense must evolve into a unit that specializes in containment against all foes, not just the ones who feel lucky if they get a first down.

There’s reason to hope for both, as Hilinski (the presumed starter going forward given Andrew Marty’s injury and Hunter Johnson’s ... let’s not talk about it) has done nothing on-field to confirm that he can’t do it, while he also has two great-by-Northwestern-standards options at wideouts in Stephon Robinson Jr. and Bryce Kirtz. And for the defense, they still have a projected NFL draft pick, sequences of great play and a head coach who most-assuredly knows how to get that unit to where it needs to be.

The questions aren’t too daunting or unanswerable, but they’re questions all the same. Is Northwestern going to be an above-average team in the Big Ten West this season? Based off of what happened on Ryan Field this Saturday, I don’t know. All I know is that after next week’s game against Nebraska, the picture should be a whole lot clearer.