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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s blowout of Ohio

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Onto exclusively Big Ten play.

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

A Hilinski-led offense will likely feature a run-first attack

In their first game with new starter Ryan Hilinski at the helm, the Wildcats relied heavily upon the ground game to generate offense. In total, NU rushed on 51 plays while attempting to pass only 20 times, gaining 373 of its 461 yards through the ground game.

From the very start of the season, the ‘Cats have tried to play smash-mouth football, shoving the ball down opponents’ throats, and it paid off handsomely on Saturday. The strategy shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as Northwestern has become rooted in a style of ugly, ground-and-pound football under Pat Fitzgerald. The game all but confirmed, though, that Mike Bajakian won’t make any drastic changes to NU’s offensive identity with a new signal caller leading the way for the time being, and that the team’s offensive focus will be running the ball as efficiently as possible in the weeks to come.

Northwestern’s running back room is deep

Evan Hull deservedly got most of the shine after rushing for two touchdowns and 216 yards, just shy of the career-highs he set against UMass in 2019. While Hull’s performance was undoubtedly impressive, the play of those below him on the depth chart was nothing to scoff at either.

Together, Andrew Clair and Anthony Tyus III rushed for 122 yards on 30 attempts, good for an average of 6.4 yards per carry. Connor Newhouse showed his speed off on a 25-yard carry. Hell, even Jake Arthurs got in on the fun with his first career touchdown run. With good reason, Northwestern fans had a lot of questions about how the team’s tailbacks would perform following the preseason injury suffered by Cam Porter. Thanks to the performance of Hull and the rest of the running back room, many of those doubts have been eased as the ‘Cats head into the bulk of conference play.

Tackling is still a problem for the defense

Even in a game in which it almost pulled off the program’s first shutout since 2017, Pat Fitzgerald was critical of one particular aspect of his defense’s showing.

“Until series six, I thought we tackled better,” Fitzgerald said. “And then series six, all of a sudden we reverted to this ugly defense we’ve played at times where we’re reaching and not running our feet and not wrapping up and not getting more population to the football with effort.”

Alas, there were missed tackles aplenty for the ‘Cats on Saturday, with a variety of should-be short stops turning into big plays for OU after several Bobcats players slipped out of the grasp of several NU defenders. This isn’t a new issue for Northwestern, but, with no time left before the conference-only segment of their schedule, the Wildcats will have to be more thorough in finishing their hits to prevent offensive onslaughts by Big Ten opponents.

Ohio is really bad, so next week’s game could be more informative than this one was

It’s hard to take much away from a game against a team that hasn’t won once this season versus a schedule of largely-mediocre opponents. While NU fans may have entered the contest aware of how bad Ohio looked on paper in its first three games of the season, the true extent of the Bobcats’ incompetence and inability could only fully be revealed by the way that they played on Saturday at Ryan Field. They shot themselves in the foot time and time again, practically gift-wrapping the game and tying it up with a nice silk bow before generously presenting it to Northwestern.

Perhaps after its embarrassing season-opening loss to Illinois and its early struggles against Fordham, you may have been able to put Nebraska in a similar category as you would Ohio. But in recent weeks, the Huskers have started to make progress, including almost knocking off undefeated Michigan State on the road before falling to the Spartans in overtime this past week. Like it or not, Nebraska is a real Big Ten team and its home stadium will present a tougher environment than the ‘Cats have faced this year. As such, it’s safe to assume that next week’s game will be far more revealing than this week’s was.

Students make college football better

It won’t show up in the box score, but there was something different in the air at Ryan Field on Saturday with Northwestern’s students back on-campus for a game for the first time since 2019. The student section was packed, and those who filled it provided an energy to the stadium that had been missing throughout 2020 and to start the 2021 season.

It remains to be seen whether or not that student attendance-induced vibe will be sustained as the season continues. Northwestern’s next home game is in the middle of October, and there’s a good chance that some colder temperatures will make the thought of going to a football game less enticing to NU’s student body, although recent student attendance at non-revenue sporting events such as field hockey, soccer and volleyball games provides some hope that there will still be a good number of students in the stands. If only for one game, though, the Wildside was back in full force, and it was a pleasant reminder of what makes collegiate athletics — college football in particular — so special.