Northwestern is already two games deep into its meat grinder of a Big-Ten schedule, and this week brought little confidence. While last week’s bout against Penn State a powerful B1G program might have brought a sliver of hope that Northwestern can compete, the Badgers dashed those hopes and showed why the ‘Cats are at the bottom of the division.
Any blind trust in Hilinski is gone
When the student section started chanting for Jack Lausch after Ryan Hilinski’s first-quarter interception, no one actually believed a change would be made. Time and time again this season, Hilinski has missed receivers, taken sacks, and misread situations, but each time, Hilinski has come trotting onto the field for the next drive. But against the Badgers, Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Bajakian didn’t go the conventional route. Hilinski’s bad ball into double-coverage was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and on the very next drive, backup QB Brendan Sullivan was the Wildcats’ signal caller. Though Fitz confirmed in the postgame presser that they had planned to put Sullivan in anyways, it’s clear now that Hilinski will have to play for his starting role. With the more mobile and perhaps more risk-averse, Sullivan behind him, Hilinski will have to perform. If not, the young gun might take the mantle of starter for good.
Students are fed up
The mass exodus of students leaving the student section at halftime was a testament to the team’s performance in the first half. It’s no secret that not many students want to stay at a 28-0 game where Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen threw a touchdown pass that looked better than anything Northwestern had put together up until that point. The Wildcats have given little reason for hope this year, and that has not been ignored. Luckily, there will be a month-long break before the ‘Cats return to Ryan Field. By then, students will have hopefully forgotten about how unsuccessful Northwestern has been at home. Non-competitive games week after week certainly take a toll on the fanbase, and if students don’t want to show up to the Ohio State game in early November, I can’t say I blame them.
The secondary struggles in space
After a year of struggles, Ryan Field was certainly a happy place for Graham Mertz, as he and Chimere Dike cut through the Northwestern secondary like warm butter on Saturday. In space, the Wildcat secondary just had no answer to the Badger offense. In the open field, like on the Allen TD pass to Chez Mellusi, the flat-footed Wildcat secondary let Mellusi find the endzone after a missed tackle by Jeremiah Lewis. On Dike’s 52-yard TD reception, the Wildcat secondary showed a similar inability to tackle, with DB Garner Wallace taking a bad route to pursue Dike, whose speed proved too much for the ‘Cats to handle. Even on Skyler Bell’s first-quarter touchdown, the secondary just failed to react to a streak route up the field, and Bell was left wide open in the endzone for what was likely one of the easiest touchdowns of his life. Outmatched in speed and unable to make open-field tackles, the Wildcat secondary lost any momentum it had after its strong week in Happy Valley.
The offensive line is struggling to support Northwestern’s run game
Evan Hull and co.’s ability to make a difference in the ground game has deteriorated exponentially as the quality of the opponent has increased. Against Penn State and Wisconsin, Northwestern has averaged a measly 2.0 yards per carry, and much of that is due to the O-Line. Each running attempt seems to be met at the line with a hoard of defenders, and the backs almost always have nowhere to run but into a swarm of defenders. Other than Skoronski, the offensive line just seems outmatched, both physically and tactically. Opposing linebackers consistently take advantage of open gaps, leaving Hull, Porter, or Hilinski with nowhere to go. Even on base, three or four-man rush sets the line tends to collapse in on itself, with RT Ethan Wiederkehr especially unable to contain opposing defensive ends. Against good teams, Northwestern simply can’t match the opposition’s blitzes and physicality.
Turnovers are unsustainable
Sure, the Penn State game gave many fans hope that this Northwestern side could at least be competitive. The Wildcats’ defense limited a strong Penn State offense to 17 points, and even if the weather was not conducive to offense, 17 points was still a small victory. But in looking at the why, it became clear that the Wildcats’ path to success, namely turnovers, is usually not the foundation on which to build a strong season. Against the Badgers, this proved true, as the Northwestern defense forced zero turnovers on the path to allowing 42 points. If Jim O’Neil wants to keep his job, he’s going to have to push the defense to contain teams without relying on forced fumbles and interceptions.