Every summer, the dawn of a new college football season signals hope for sports fans across the country. There’s hope that this will finally be their year. Hope that no matter what sports commentators say, things are finally going to be different. Be it somewhat reasonable or completely illogical, the weeks leading up to kickoff can be a blissful time where every team has the same record and you can allow yourself to dream of your team defying the odds and having the season of a lifetime.
However, in the weeks leading up to Northwestern football’s season opener against Nebraska, that typical sense of hope and belief in this year’s team was noticeably missing. Ahead of a game featuring two teams that both finished 3-9 in 2021, bookmakers set Nebraska as 13-point favorites, slowly creeping down to 11 by gametime, over Northwestern, a line that no one blinked twice at.
Among the Wildcat faithful, a group that should be the biggest believers in their own team, optimism was the lowest. Despite returning 65% of its offensive and defensive production from 2021 and having one of the most proven head coaches in college football, no one thought the ‘Cats were coming away from Ireland with a win. In our own Inside NU game predictions, 73% of our staffers picked Nebraska to win, and Northwestern fans across social media agreed.
“Remember what happened the last time a starter was announced on gameday?”
“I want to believe. But I don’t.”
“Too many unknowns.”
But on a crisp fall Saturday in Dublin, Pat Fitzgerald’s squad responded to in-game adversity time and time again to give way to its eventual 31-28 upset win over Nebraska, silencing their critics — at least, for the time being.
The beginning of the game presented reminders of challenges from 2021. In the game's first drive, the Huskers tore apart the Wildcats’ defense on the ground and by air, scoring a touchdown in under three minutes. Northwestern’s immediate response? A meager 27-yard drive, in part hindered by a false start penalty.
Unlike all the times from last year, however, this year’s Northwestern football team was willing and capable of fighting back.
The ‘Cats responded by forcing a three-and-out and managed to respond with a field goal by Adam Stage, the second-string kicker who was thrust into action after Jack Olsen was reportedly banged up ahead of the game’s start.
After another Nebraska touchdown drive that extended its lead to 11, the ‘Cats responded again with a touchdown of their own in under a minute.
This type of back and forth persisted all night. But when it mattered most, the ‘Cats stepped up and got the job done, managing to wind the clock down behind an unrelenting rushing attack and a defensive stand capped by a game-ending interception by linebacker Xander Mueller.
“Our players made a decision in January that we were going to restore our pride,” Fitz told reporters after the game. “And a game like tonight, the way we had a fight against a very good Nebraska team... it shows their dedication from January all the way through our prep this morning.”
Led by quarterback Ryan Hilinski, Northwestern’s offense simply could not be stopped. The group put up over 500 yards of total offense: over 300 through the air, and another 200+ from the two-headed rushing monster of Evan Hull and Cam Porter. The South Carolina transfer was incredibly efficient, completing 71% of his passes and tossing two touchdowns to boot.
That was Northwestern's best game on offense since ... I can't even remember.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) August 27, 2022
Hilinski: 27-of-38 for 313 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs.
Evan Hull: 22 carries, 119 yards.
Cam Porter: 19 for 94.
Offensive line was dominant at times.
Hilinski, who was officially named the starter under an hour before kickoff, said after the game that he found out he would be starting at the same time as everyone else.
“Tonight I was just excited to go out there and play with the guys because man, we’ve been through a lot this offseason,” Hilinski said. “We were just excited to get out there and play football again and show people who the Wildcats are [so] they don’t forget again.”
In case any readers need reminding, this was the same Ryan Hilinski who lost the starting gig midway through last season and threw no touchdowns and three interceptions in his final three games in 2021. While many anticipated that it would be him and not sophomore Brendan Sullivan lining up under center for the ‘Cats in Ireland, faith in him — from observers and Northwestern fans alike — was virtually nonexistent. His success against Nebraska, though, was proof of the improvements that he had made throughout the offseason.
“[Hilinski] was just so focused and disciplined from January all the way through today,” Fitz said of his quarterback. “He just totally changed his body and found this place called the weight room, which is a pretty important place for everybody... [tonight] you saw the Ryan Hilinski that we recruited and expected to see. He put the work ethic in to learn the offense, to master it, and now he just has to keep taking steps as he moves forward, but I’m very proud of him.”
It wasn’t just Hilinski’s ability to throw the football that led to Northwestern’s success, but also an unwavering ability and mentality to overcome any challenge that came its way.
After a Cam Porter fumble in the third quarter that would lead to Nebraska extending its lead back to 11, the ‘Cats responded again in a flash with a touchdown in under two minutes, with Porter running the ball into the endzone. Porter’s backfield partner Evan Hull said that it was this commitment to not backing down that is going to be a core identity of this year’s squad moving forward.
“Our team is built for this,” Hull said. “We’ve been training all offseason to respond to adversity. There were blows back and forth, and we didn’t flinch. Every time they got up or got some momentum, we took a step back and understood that this was a four-quarter game and we kept just fighting through it.”
Hull, who amassed 119 yards on the ground and also caught five balls for 55 yards in a do-it-all performance á la Christian McCaffrey, also made sure to attribute the team’s success to that of the offensive line.
“They’re everything,” Hull said of the line. “It starts up front with all those guys up there, [and] they played a hell of a game today.”
All this being said, this Northwestern team still has a lot to prove and a lot of questions to answer, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The defense, while impressive at times, generally struggled throughout the game to generate pressure and defend the pass. Xander Mueller and cornerback Cam Mitchell each came up with timely interceptions, but the unit as a whole gave up 465 yards of total offense to the Huskers.
The ‘Cats will now have a week to rest and prepare for their home opener against Duke on September 10. Tweaks will be made to their gameplan, reminders will be given that Nebraska was only the first opponent of twelve this season, and there will most certainly be more challenges along the way. But beating Nebraska has officially reignited that belief and feeling of hope that was ostensibly missing from Northwestern’s fans.
And some might say that the Nebraska win was thanks to the luck of the Irish. Or perhaps it’s just the magic of even year Northwestern. But maybe this was simply the result that happens when a talented and well-coached team executes its game plan and outplays its opponent. And maybe, just maybe, it’s the sign of more to come.