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Where Are We Wednesday: Taking a western turn

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Northwestern looked good against Ohio, but a much more daunting stretch of opponents rests ahead on the docket.

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

As a Power Five team, it’s your responsibility to take care of business and ­easily dethrone FBS or lower-level squads. Unless you are the Minnesota Golden Gophers (hello, Bowling Green), most P5 units have guaranteed victories when encountering teams that are not of the same echelon.

Much was the case last Saturday, as the Northwestern Wildcats cruised to a 35-6 win over the Ohio Bobcats. Evan Hull posted gaudy numbers against an lackluster defense once again, as his 216 yards and two touchdowns drew the allure of Co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors.

We know that Pat Fitzgerald isn’t afraid to play smashmouth football and run the ball down an opponent’s throat when he feels that’s the best gameplan, as was the case just under a week ago. But the ‘Cats turning into the 2019 Baltimore Ravens was far from the only positive against a MAC opponent.

Through its first five halves, Jim O’Neil’s defense seemed entirely out of sorts, a stark shift from Northwestern’s dominant unit a season ago. However, the tide seems to have turned since the final whistle of the second quarter in Durham. In their last six quarters, the ‘Cats have surrendered just six points and 436 total yards and, perhaps even more impressively, have snatched five takeaways.

Subsequent to Saturday, NU evened its record at 2-2 — definitely not where Fitzgerald & Co. wish to be, but a decent baseline through four games considering the revolving door that has been the quarterback position.

However, it’s crucial to keep in mind that the first four games on Northwestern’s schedule were supposed to be the easy portion.

From this point onward, the Wildcats will square off with nothing but Big Ten foes, six of eight of which coming from Big Ten West. Northwestern’s future opponents have a combined record of 20-13, good for a .606 winning percentage; further, both the Michigan Wolverines and the Iowa Hawkeyes, who the ‘Cats will face before the year wraps up, are ranked inside the top 15.

Conference play hasn’t been an issue for Northwestern in recent memory. In fact, NU has gone 7-2 against B1G opponents between this year and last.

The elephant in the room, though, is that 2020 and 2021 appear to be drastically different seasons.

Last year, Peyton Ramsey had a stranglehold on the quarterback position and executed Mike Bajakian’s gameplan with few flaws. I genuinely think that many Northwestern fans — and even analysts around the country — took his play for granted, especially considering what we’ve witnessed thus far in 2021.

The other enormous distinction is that the ‘Cats’ defense is certainly not as ferocious as it was a season ago. Sure, O’Neil’s contingent has played better in the last two games, but it doesn’t appear as if Bajakian’s offense can sit pretty by just scoring 20 points.

Northwestern has fired on all cylinders against MAC teams like Ohio or FBS challengers like Indiana State (that definition may be a stretch for that zany game, though). But how will Fitzgerald’s team translate in the increased physicality and overall higher caliber of the Big Ten?

First, I think that question largely rests upon quarterback play. As of now, Ryan Hilinski is the certified QB1 on the roster. However, the South Carolina transfer hardly did anything except hand it off to Hull, Andrew Clair and Anthony Tyus III on Saturday, and even when he did throw, things didn’t exactly appear to be clicking, with his 88 passing yards telling the story.

Fundamentally, can Hilinski actually pass the ball consistently and reliably? The QB hasn’t amassed more than 100 passing yards in a game since 2019, but in order for NU to stave off a miserable season, Fitzgerald will have to rely upon the sophomore to, at the very least, serve as a game manager.

Additionally, how will Hull stack up against tenacious Big Ten defenses? His talent has beamed against inferior opponents, as Fitzgerald largely rode his coattails to victory against the Sycamores and Bobcats.

A silver lining from a cataclysmic showing against Michigan State was Hull posting 87 rushing yards and 23 receiving yards. One could contend that that game was played before Hull was solidly entrenched as NU’s starting running back, and, according to comments made by Fitzgerald after, Hull may have been battling through somewhat of an injury, too.

However, the Cornhuskers – and other Big Ten stalwarts – will truly pose a litmus test. Thus far, Wisconsin leads the country in rushing yards allowed per game at an astonishingly low 25 ground yards; Iowa is not far behind in the rankings at 84.5 yards allowed/game. And Fitzgerald was correct in heralding Nebraska’s defensive performance a week ago, as Scott Frost’s team contained Kenneth Walker III — remember him? — to just 61 yards.

Moreover, the question will become whether or not Northwestern’s defense can continue to apply the clamps and accumulate turnovers. Takeaways seemed to be the catalyst for Mike Hankwitz’s D a season ago, and O’Neil’s took a step in that direction last weekend. Without a doubt, Adetomiwa Adebawore, Chris Bergin, Brandon Joseph, A.J. Hampton and more will be encountering legitimate stars and future NFL players when they line up against Tyler Linderbaum (Iowa), David Bell (Purdue), Sam LaPorta (Iowa) and many more.

Finally, it’s paramount to consider the atmospheres into which Fitzgerald will be leading his team. When the Wildcats enter Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium on Saturday, nearly 90,000 fans will be as loud as ever — and don’t expect them to “whoosh” after moving the chains. The same can be said about taking on Michigan in The Big House and traveling to Camp Randall Stadium to face Wisconsin. It shouldn’t be discounted that these games will be Northwestern’s first in raucous, unsympathetic environments since 2019.

Knowing Northwestern football, it would be quite apropos to pull off the upset and leave Lincoln with a W late Saturday night. Such is the unpredictable the nature of NU — and, apparently, much of the nation — on the gridiron.

Pat Fitzgerald, unequivocally, has the opportunity to write this team’s destiny in stone over the course of the rest of the season. In order to avoid massive regression, though, the sixth-longest-tenured head coach in the sport must ready his phalanx of troops for some grueling battles ahead.