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Hilinski’s Heaves/Sullivan’s Slings: Double the QBs, double the fun?

Two-quarterback affairs, how we’ve missed you.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Welcome back to the film room; close the door and soundproof it, because this film session is not going to be fun. There is a saying that in coach speak known as “burning the tape.” It means that after watching the tape you bury it and never look at it again. That would certainly be an accurate representation that was this dumpster fire of a game for Northwestern.

In a contest where the Wisconsin Badgers had just fired their head coach a week after having only two rushing yards, it seemed that they were bound for Indianapolis and a New Year’s Six bowl. Any positives coming out of Happy Valley a week ago were long gone by the end of the first half, nay the first quarter. The Wildcats could get nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, going on offense. It was a slog to watch, and the second week in a row Northwestern failed to score double digits. Ryan Hilinski got benched, put back in the game, and then got hurt. His replacement, Brendan Sullivan, was benched and then had to return after Hilinski went down.

After this week, I could not tell you who the Wildcats’ starting quarterback is. Nonetheless, both of the gunslingers’ performances need to be analyzed.

The Numbers

Starting with the man who has started every game for the ‘Cats this year, it was not a good day for junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski. The junior was 10-for-22 for a 45.5 completion percentage for 147 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He was benched once and then could not return due to an injury.

In a season that began so promisingly for him, Hilinski has hit a major slump over the past month. On a positive note, Hilinski’s yards per attempt did increase by almost a full yard from last week, measuring out at nearly seven yards per attempt, his highest since Week Two.

Unfortunately, that was about one of the only good things that came from Saturday. Hilinski finished with his worst PFF passing grade (a grade based on his entire play) of the season with a 43.3 grade. Hilinski did take more chances this game than before, as his big-time throw percentage (percentage of passes that are with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window) jumped to 9.1%, his highest by far this season. His adjusted completion percentage (completions + drops/aimed) did increase to 54.5%, roughly the same number as last week. Yet he did not help himself get out of the bottom of the Big Ten in these categories.

PFF grade: 52.2 (14/14 qualified Quarterbacks)

BTT% (the % of attempts that are big-time throws): 2% (13/14 qualified quarterbacks)

Adjusted competition percentage: 65.0% (13/14 qualified Big Ten QBs)

Hilinski was pressured less this week than last week in Happy Valley; more specifically, only 26.1 % of the time. However, Hilinski struggled mightily passing down the field. He had just four attempts of 20+ yards but was even worse in intermediate passes. Hilinski went 4-for-11 with two interceptions on passes between 10-19 yards, brutal in a game where the ‘Cats needed to play catch up the entire time. Here is a breakdown of Hilinski’s passing chart for Week Six.

Pat Fitzgerald was not shy to turn to Sullivan, with the coach noting the plan was to insert the sophomore on the third drive. Sullivan is a much more mobile quarterback than Hilinski: he was the ‘Cats’ leading rusher on Saturday with a mere 33 yards.

Further, Sullivan was more efficient throwing the football than Hilinski. Sullivan went 11-for-17 with a 64.7% completion rate, one touchdown and zero interceptions. The Michigan native had the exact same yards per attempt as Hilinski at 6.7. However, Sullivan’s PFF grade did not line up with his efficiency. His PFF passing grade was also below average at 45.2, but his big-time throw percentage was 5.9% and his adjusted completion percentage sat at 80%. Sullivan was under more pressure than Hilinski, facing heat on 41.7% of his drop backs.

The newcomer didn’t try to push the ball down the field, only throwing four passes over ten yards. Sullivan is not eligible to be compared to the other Big Ten QBs yet, but here was his passing chart for the game.

That was enough numbers, because numbers can not do justice to what was on the field. So let’s get into the tape. The good, but mostly the bad.

The Bad

Last week, I started out trying to be positive. There was a massive rain storm, and I thought that Hilinski actually showed improvement from a rough two weeks against non-Power Five opponents.

This week around, there is not nearly as much to be positive about. It was a massive step back from the improvement just a week ago. Granted, it doesn’t help that the ‘Cats couldn’t get the run game going, but the run game is going to be abandoned when the defense can’t stop a nose bleed and puts the team in a massive hole from kickoff. However, the inability to do anything on offense took Northwestern out of this game.


Every football coach, from the pop warner to the NFL, will tell you the key to winning the game is to win the turnover battle. Last week, the Wildcats won the turnover battle but did nothing off the turnovers, making the point rather moot. This week, they lost the turnover battle, and it hurt them.

Northwestern had actually been moving the ball decently on its first two drives, but Hilinski had a near turnover on the first drive by not noticing the linebackers switching onto a crossing route by Donny Navarro III; likewise, on the second drive, the QB tossed one straight into triple coverage on a dig route by Malik Washington.

On a third-and-six just short of midfield, the ‘Cats come out in a 3-by-1 iso set with the back to the three-receiver set. Wisconsin shows blitz pre snap and runs a twist stunt to bring pressure, as they play Tampa 2 coverage behind it, dropping the Mike linebacker straight into the deep middle of the field. Hilinski does a very good job of stepping up in the pocket and not throwing off his back foot. The ‘Cats run a dig concept to the three-man side and a stop route with the single receiver.

As Hilinski steps up, Evan Hull leaks out of pass protection into the flat as an easy checkdown for the QB. Instead, Hilinski tries to riffle a ball into Malik Washington 15 yards downfield, where three Badgers could have picked it off. One did, and killed the drive right there. If Hilinski had looked right in front of him and flicked it to Hull, there is green grass all around him for an easy first down for the ‘Cats, but he tried to force something and never saw the dropping linebacker or the safety squatting on the route. Hilinski has to remain poised under pressure; if he did, the QB would have seen Hull and moved the chains.

After being benched but returning after Sullivan could not get anything going, Hilinski marched the ‘Cats deep into Badger territory on back-to-back drives. The first one ended on a missed field goal on a questionable decision from Fitzgerald. The second one... Well, you can guess what happened.

On a fourth-and-three, the Wildcats line up in an over formation, with every eligible player to the strong side of the field. They run a two man boot concept, a whip route and comeback route, as Hilinski rolls to his right. Everything is covered as the Badgers play Cover Two and swallow up the whip route. Hilinski tries to force the comeback, but the safety reads his eyes the entire way and easily jumps the route for an interception to end the drive.

Hilinski was hurt on the play and would not return to the game. It was a lose-lose situation for Hilinski, as it was fourth down and there was nowhere to go with the ball. He had no choice but to force it with only a two-man concept. It goes down as another interception on the junior’s stat sheet, though one of his less egregious ones of the year.

Welcome to the Big Ten, kid. There is nothing Sullivan can do here, as the Badgers only bring four. Northwestern had five protecting, so this should have been picked up. The tackle recognized the blitzing interior linebacker and let the outside ‘backer have a free shot.

If the guard comes off the double team with the center and picks up the ILB, allowing the tackle to work outside, Sullivan can run the play. The OLB is on Sullivan before any route is even in play and absolutely demolishes him, forcing the ball loose. This one is not on the QB, but I’m sure Sullivan is going to remember it.

Situational Football

Some of this is definitely on the coaching staff, but the situational awareness of these quarterbacks has to improve. On multiple third-and-shorts, both Hilinski and Sullivan are trying to go for the big play instead of just getting what they need to keep the drive alive.

During Sullivan’s second drive of the game, he gets NU in a manageable third-and-three. The come out in empty against man coverage for the Badgers. The Wildcats love empty because it allows their best player, Evan Hull, to get in space and make plays. While the Badgers do get a little bit of pressure, Sullivan has more than enough time to get the ball out to Hull on a quick slant.

Hull has separation and if the ball is put on him, it is an easy first down and maybe more. Sullivan does not look Hull’s way, instead trying to throw deep all the way down the field to Navarro. There is a time and place for a deep ball —first down or second-and-short. On third down, though, the main goal is to keep the drive alive. Sullivan has to understand that and not take the shot there, as he ends up overshooting Navarro by just inches and sends the punt team back on instead of keeping the drive alive. If the kid wants to stay on the field, he has to learn to take what is given to him.

After multiple three-and-outs by Sullivan, Fitzgerald returned the rock to Hilinski. Hilinski did a very good job moving Northwestern down the field, helped by a massive gain on a screen to, you guessed it, Evan Hull (it’s almost like they should give the dude more touches).

However, Hilinski’s situational awareness around the goal line was, at best, questionable. With 30 seconds to go, the ‘Cats faced a third-and-one on the Badger four-yard line. NU still had two time outs, so clock was not an issue. The purple and white come out in 3-by-1 with a tight end attached on the backside, and the Badgers play man coverage against it.

Hilinski has two options: read man pre-snap and take the running back in the flat on a angle route against a linebacker, or work his three-man side. In what is a really good play call, the Wildcats run a perfect pick play that leaves Malik Washington wide open at the first-down marker and had a chance to get in for a touchdown. Instead, Hilinski tries to throw a back-pylon fade that is covered well, forcing a fourth down.

If Hilinski executes correctly, the home side scores. While they do pick up the fourth down, a questionable decision by Fitz to send the field goal unit on proves unsuccessful, and Northwestern comes away with nothing going into the half.

One thing both of these quarterbacks needs to get better at situationally is learning when to just play another down. It is so difficult to not play hero ball and try to make a difficult play, but sometimes it is better to toss it away and recollect.

For Sullivan, third-and-11 in your first game is less than ideal. What is also suboptimal is the pressure in his face from the Badgers. As he feels the rush, Sullivan’s feet start to get hoppy — or, as my coach used to refer to them as, “happy feet”. Sullivan is not set as he throws, launching off his back foot as he gets hit, and just lobs one up for Malik Washington running across the field. The sophomore doesn’t see the safety come screeching down and light Washington up, let alone the other DB right with Washington, who pops the ball into the air.

Sullivan is very lucky that the safety went for the hit; otherwise that’s an easy interception. As he gets more reps, he needs to understand it is okay to throw the ball away and punt it. It is more difficult said than done, especially trailing 21-0 on third down and trying to spark an offense, but a turnover on your own side of the field is way more detrimental to your cause than a punt is.

Oh, Hilinski. It is first down: no need to try to force the ball here. Pressure comes late, and Hull may have been open late as a checkdown, but you are so lucky that this wasn’t another turnover. Washington is not open, yet Hilinski tries to force it between two linebackers and in front of a defensive back.

There is such a low chance of completing this pass, even with his arm strength. Hilinski is under pressure and tries to make a miracle happen, which was how his other two interceptions occurred. This ball bounced off the linebacker’s hands and should have been caught. The California native is trying to make a play after being benched and down 28-0, but this is is inopportune. Now in his second year in Evanston, Hilinski has to stop trying to force the ball into miniscule windows and just take what is given. It is first down: just throw the ball away. If Hilinski wants to remain in this lineup, he has to be smarter with the chances he takes.

The Good

After 2500 words of bad, let’s find some positives. There were not many, but here we go.

Sullivan’s Mobility

Sullivan can run, and pretty well at that. He escaped multiple situations with his legs, and even had some designed runs. If the ‘Cats have a mobile QB, it becomes a lot more difficult to sit on Evan Hull every carry.

This is just a fantastic job by Sullivan on power read. The C-gap defender crashes way too far inside, while the middle linebacker scrapes over the top to meet Cam Porter running to the sideline. With the read defender outside, Sullivan makes the correct read and pulls the ball down and picks up a nice gain with his legs.

This is an untapped part of Mike Bajakian’s offense that could really help open a stagnant run game. Sullivan’s running ability is definitely one of the main reasons for Fitzgerald to hand him the keys.

This Absolute Dot

I have no other word for this except an absolute dot by Sullivan. You can’t ask for a better throw than this.

Sullivan lets this thing go at the opposite hash on the Northwestern 45-yard line and throws a perfect back-shoulder ball to the Badger four right on the sideline. I can only think of maybe two other quarterbacks in the Big Ten who could make this 50+-yard throw, and Sullivan made it look easy. If the staff wanted to see him make a big boy throw, that was it. NU has struggled all year on the deep ball; maybe a new QB could be the answer.

Time to Burn the Tape

Well, that was about as painful of a rewatch as possible, and I have watched the last 10 years of Jets football.

For anyone wondering who will get the start in College Park next week, I could not tell you. Hilinski has more experience and a slightly better arm, but Sullivan opens up the offense and creates more opportunities with his legs. At 1-5, you have to see what you have in the sophomore to know whether or not to look in the transfer portal in January.

Nevertheless, the ‘Cats need to put this game behind them and burn the tape; homecoming 2022 should never be spoken about again.