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Five things we learned from Northwestern’s gritty victory over Nebraska

Maybe there is some hope for the Wildcats.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern USA TODAY Sports

After an utterly disappointing 2021 campaign, the Wildcats aim to reclaim their Big Ten West crown. Opening the season’s play in Ireland against the Cornhuskers, Northwestern pulled off a tone-setting upset as an 11-point underdog. A thriving offense paved the way, and the defense executed big plays when it needed to most. With reason for optimism on the horizon, here are five things to take away from NU’s wild win over Nebraska.

Northwestern’s offensive line will set the tone

On many occasions, we’ve seen Northwestern’s offensive line serve as the bane of the team’s existence. Look no further than a bevy of games from last season, in which defensive lines had their way with the unit’s injured interior — absent of LG Josh Priebe and RG Conrad Rowley.

Saturday’s showing was far from subpar. In fact, the majestic return of the aforementioned guards ignited one of the offense’s most electric showings in recent memory. Behind a healthy line, anchored by a potential All-American left tackle in Peter Skoronski, the ‘Cats rushed for more than 200 yards at a clip of 4.6 yards per carry. As for pass protection, Ryan Hilinski may as well have been throwing in a red practice jersey the way Nebraska’s defense struggled to even touch him on drop-backs. An offense is only as good as its offensive line. From what we saw on Saturday, this team should have no issue staying alive so long as the O-line injury bug stays dormant.

Pat Fitzgerald is still a conservative decision maker

We’ve seen in the past that head coach Pat Fitzgerald is a risk aversion loyalist. For better or for worse — though, almost always for worse — Fitz veers away from confronting a potential turnover on downs or red zone interception.

Ironically, in the team’s first bind of the season late in the second quarter on Saturday, he made the call to go for it on 4th-and-short. And what would you know? It paid off, as the offense converted and went on to score a touchdown, giving them their first lead in a football game in nearly a year.

Alas, it would’ve been too simple for Fitz, a typically sensical coach, to keep with this more aggressive mentality. Amidst another fourth-and-short squeeze in the third quarter, as momentum had started to shift Nebraska’s way, Coach called the special teams unit out. Nearing crunch time, now down four and deep into ‘Husker territory, Fitz opted to play it safe and run the ball for negligible yardage on a third-and-seven. Adam Stage then missed a 36-yard field goal. It’s easy to shake off these questionable decisions in the face of an emotional win, but against teams better than Nebraska — of which, there will be many — decision-making miscues will make for a more unfortunate ending.

The Wildcats’ running back room can make teams pay

It felt like the game might have gotten away from Northwestern after a textbook hit from a Nebraska defender jarred the ball out of Cam Porter’s left arm on the first offensive play following a Big Red touchdown. Yet here we are, celebrating a gutsy win. Why? Because of the grit the running back room had on display all day, even in the face of adversity.

Porter himself responded to his fumble with poise, breaking into the end-zone on the very next drive. On the day, the junior running back tallied 94 yards, averaging almost 5.0 yards per carry. For most teams, Porter’s performance would be a great outing for their RB1. For Northwestern, the star of the show was Evan Hull.

On the way to notching 192 total scrimmage yards and a touchdown, Hull showcased his pass-catching ability and patience in the run game. In fact, both backs seemed to take every one of Hilinski’s handoffs, pause behind one of their sturdy linemen, find the open gap, and then slip their way through for a chunk of yards. It’s a skill that sounds simple in essence but is rare in the college football landscape. A two-headed monster might’ve been discovered on Saturday, and if it continues to rear its head, opposing defenders are in for many long, hands-on-the-hips days.

Ryan Hilinski is a new man — one that can take Northwestern far

Last season, Ryan Hilinksi was new to the Wildcats’ offense, having transferred from a South Carolina scheme that was substantially different from what offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian runs in Evanston. As such, the then-sophomore averaged an interception every 44 passing attempts and an almost-underwater completion rate.

An offseason of preparation and the Irish scenery seemed to be enough to put Hilinksi on the right track, as he chalked a near-perfect passer rating of 157.8 (perfect would’ve been 158.3). Starting the game completing 20 of his first 23 passes was also a good indicator that what we were watching might’ve been a new-and-improved Hilinksi. The offense was humming along all day, thanks to the quarterback’s elite ball placement and wise decision-making behind his staunch line.

Hilinski impressed the most when it came to his game IQ — only putting balls where purple jerseys could catch them, checking down when Nebraska’s safeties dropped back, squeezing every last drop out of the play clock to deny Casey Thompson and Co. the chance to fire back…Chef’s kiss. There was enough consistency on Hilinski’s end to make many believe what we saw was more than just some good ole Irish luck. And if what we believe is true, opposing defenses are in for a battle the rest of the season.

NU’s season could very well boil down to defensive consistency

I’ve spent most of this article praising the offense and its year-over-year improvements. But what’s an elite offense without an elite defense? It’s definitely not enough to take down the likes of an Ohio State, a Penn State, or a Wisconsin.

The defense jeopardized every game-saving play it made with a potential game-losing play. Granted, some suspect penalties negated nice stops and altered momentum, but forcing three big turnovers and still allowing 28 points are usually mutually exclusive concepts. Northwestern’s defense allowed Nebraska to start the game 9-for-11 on third down conversions. That’s about as bad of a clip as a team can realistically have. The silver lining? The ‘Cats forced 11 ‘Husker third downs barely halfway into the game. Northwestern’s defense gave up a near 60-yard bomb early in the third quarter after chasing a scrambling Casey Thompson around for over ten seconds. That pass led to a touchdown five plays later. The silver lining? The ‘Cats forced a quarterback to scramble for over ten seconds because of how many opposing jerseys there were in the backfield. Obviously, the defense held up for NU in the end, as Xander Mueller sealed the game with a clutch interception, but it’s these little things that need balance in order for this team to really experience success this year.