With its 31-3 blowout loss to Minnesota, Northwestern just continues to reach new lows. Many expected a loss on Saturday. No one expected the ‘Cats to play four quarterbacks, with Brendan Sullivan and Ryan Hilinski both exiting due to injury. There isn’t too much new information to digest from a team that hasn’t won a game in almost three months (let alone in the United States), but here are five things to take away from Saturday’s loss.
The offense isn’t great with Brendan Sullivan, but it can get a whole lot uglier without him
It’s true that Northwestern’s offense has only averaged about 15 points in games where Brendan Sullivan was under center for the overwhelming majority of NU’s snaps. It’s also true that he is far from the culprit behind those struggles. The sophomore has gradually improved, and his 94 yards on 9-for-11 passing against the Golden Gophers showed that.
In contrast, the three other quarterbacks who appeared — Ryan Hilinski, Cole Freeman and Carl Richardson — combined for 6-of-21 passing, two interceptions and six drives that put up a grand total of three points (which came on a drive Sullivan started). There are very few bright spots for the ‘Cats, but this game demonstrated that Sullivan is one of them.
Northwestern cannot string together consecutive weeks of competitive football
After Northwestern hung with No. 2 Ohio State for three and a half quarters at Ryan Field, there was hope that it could ride that positive momentum to close out the season with competitive football, even if it didn’t culminate in wins. As they have time and time again in 2022, Fitz and Co. threw that optimism right out the window in the game that followed.
This isn’t new, as Northwestern’s Homecoming debacle against Wisconsin came on the heels of a hard-fought 17-7 road loss to then-No. 11 Penn State. Also, its embarrassing performance in Iowa City followed a back-and-forth 31-24 defeat to Maryland. By that logic, NU should be due for some positives against Purdue next weekend! But on a more serious note, it’s especially concerning that the ‘Cats have taken two giant steps back for every baby step forward they take.
No matter the quarterback or running back, the ‘Cats cannot stop the run
For the third time this season, Northwestern had an opportunity to face a backup quarterback. And for the third time this season, it failed miserably at stopping the ensuing run-heavy attack. Minnesota’s Athan Kaliakmanis had shown flashes of potential against Penn State and Nebraska, but his presence indicated the Gophers would rely on Mohamed Ibrahim for most of their offense.
That gave Jim O’Neil’s defense the green light to stack the box, but it didn’t matter. The star tailback toted the rock 36 times for 178 yards and three scores. When he wasn’t on the field, Treyson Potts and Zach Evans consistently picked up big chunks of yardage. This problem isn’t new for Northwestern, as Maryland’s Roman Hemby and Miami of Ohio’s Keyon Mozee have also gashed the ‘Cats. With Chase Brown coming to Evanston in two weeks, it likely won’t get any better, either.
Early-down offensive playcalling has to improve
After moving the chains on nine out of 20 third down plays against the Buckeyes, Northwestern was just 3-for-12 in that area on Saturday. However, only two of those came on situations where the ‘Cats needed fewer than five yards to convert. Mike Bajakian’s offense has mightily struggled to generate an efficient attack through the air all year on early downs, and it showed again against the Gophers.
Yes, it was cold. But running the ball more times than you throw it in a 31-3 loss where the other team won the time of possession battle by over 20 minutes looks silly. Bajakian’s unit has to stay on the field for longer than one set of downs for NU to play effectively on the other side of the ball.
The end of the season won’t be pretty
With colder weather comes increasingly run-heavy offensive game-planning. Guess what one of Northwestern’s biggest weaknesses is? Purdue may not be great at running the football, but then again, neither was Iowa or Maryland. Both the Boilermakers and Illinois have struggled in recent weeks and are now in a four-way tie for the Big Ten West lead, so there’s little chance the ‘Cats will catch either opponent sleepwalking in a trap game. Barring more weather phenomena (which you can never rule out in the Midwest, of course), it’s going to be very difficult for Northwestern to even keep either of its last two games close, let alone win them.