There’s certainly more good than bad from Northwestern’s electric victory over Nebraska in Dublin. Ryan Hilinski emerged as a leader, and his O-line showed out for NU’s running back room. Thanks to clutch defense, the Wildcats secured a victory in a season looking to reset the narratives — and courtesy of the elements below, they did.
Ryan Hilinski and the offense
Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson was somewhat dynamic in his Huskers debut, completing 23 of 38 passes for 324 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. After an offseason of quarterback controversy, Hilinski left little doubt he was the right man for the job, matching, if not outplaying, Thompson the entire way.
In his first season-opening start for the Wildcats, Hilinski flourished. The junior went 27 for 38 with 313 yards and two touchdowns. Notably, he became the first Northwestern QB since Mike Kafka in 2009 to go 7-for-7 or better in the first quarter, per ESPN Stats and Info. Hilinski’s decisiveness, arm strength and poise shone through, especially because of fantastic protection from Peter Skoronski and NU’s offensive line.
Northwestern also demonstrated a multiplicity of targets as viable options, with nine different players hauling in passes. Hilinski will have no shortage of skill-position players to sling the rock going forward. Factor in 170 combined yards from Evan Hull and Cam Porter, and the ‘Cats showed major strides on O.
The ‘Cats’ pass rush was largely ineffective (more on that below), but Adebawore excelled. The senior captain was one of few in purple and white to consistently disrupt the pocket and force rushed throws from Thompson. The NFL Draft hopeful set his sights on an award-winning season with his debut performance in 2022.
This list originally included transfer kicker Adam Stage, but his missed kick to open the fourth quarter appeared cataclysmic at the time. On the other hand, punter Akers proved a field-flipper courtesy of three punts inside Nebraska’s 10-yard-line, including one with nearly two minutes left; all in all, Akers had six punts for an average of 41 yards.
Honorable Mentions: Run defense, Donny Navarro III, Coco Azema and Cam Mitchell, free food and beer at the stadium, showing the Irish good football (and Wildcat wins)
Northwestern’s pass rush
As alluded to earlier, the Wildcats did not do much to disrupt Thompson’s timing, accruing two sacks (one on a safety blitz) and minimal pressures. NU’s defense figures to be strongest in the back-end, but more will need to be established from other edge rushers and defensive linemen to consistently get home as the season progresses.
Chunk plays through the air
A consequence of poor defensive line play was Thompson being able to pick apart Northwestern’s secondary. NU surrendered significant gains over the middle and along the sidelines, particularly to Trey Palmer and Travis Vokolek. That also transpired when Thompson was flushed from the pocket, collected himself and launched a bomb to Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda for 58 yards. Nebraska did not consistently capitalize on such gains, especially with Thompson missing some shots in the second half and drops occurring, but yielding large plays is not a recipe for success.
For as well as the Wildcats moved the chains, the team was slightly less precise on third down, finishing 7-for-16. Consequently, Pat Fitzgerald’s squad did not always translate long drives into touchdowns, something that Mike Bajakian will assuredly seek to improve.
Honorable Mentions: Bilateral coaching decisions, Irish Internet, referees recognizing timeout signals