The narrative around Northwestern’s Week Three matchup against Southern Illinois coming into the 2022 season was one of cautious optimism before the Wildcats’ loss to Duke. Ranked in the FCS top 10 to begin the year, it looked as if SIU could make another push into the playoffs after losing last year to juggernaut North Dakota State in the quarterfinals. With 13 FBS transfers and the return of their starting quarterback, top receiver, and star DB, the expectation for the Salukis is, at the very least, to qualify for the FCS playoffs.
But, their season has started slow, to say the least, with losses to Southeast Missouri State and Incarnate Word. Despite the SIU’s failures, Northwestern’s poor showing against Duke makes this matchup seem like it may be slightly competitive, and Wildcat players, some more than others, have plenty to prove this Saturday.
QB Nic Baker, RB Javon Williams Jr. and WR Avonte Cox vs. Northwestern’s secondary
Wide receiver Avonte Cox is the star in Carbondale. A three-time all-MVFC selection and a HERO Sports preseason All-American, Cox has been the Salukis’ leading receiver so far this year (to no surprise). Supporting Cox is all-purpose back Javon Williams Jr., who might be one of the most fun players the Wildcats will play against. Offensive coordinator Blake Rolan loves to utilize Williams in the wildcat formation and passing game, both places where he can showcase his athleticism. With veteran quarterback Nic Baker leading the way, the Wildcats’ secondary will be challenged. Against Duke, it looked confused at times, and Blue Devil receivers found space with their speed off the snap. Coco Azema’s return (hopefully) should mitigate some issues, but it will be interesting to see whether Northwestern can improve in Week Three.
Ryan Hilinski vs. CB PJ Jules
The FOX broadcast would not stop raving about the “closing speed” of Duke’s defensive backs. And while the Blue Devil secondary deserves some credit for its 13 pass breakups, Ryan Hilinski should shoulder at least part of the blame. Plenty of those breakups came from balls behind the receiver or balls thrown softly enough that the DBs had a chance to cut off the pass before it even reached the hands of the target. For short passes to open receivers, restraining ball speed in favor of accuracy is okay, but when throwing into tight spaces, Hilinski has to put more mustard on it, especially against SIU’s top corner PJ Jules. Jules leads SIU in pass breakups, and in his fourth year, his experience will make him a potential issue for Hilinski and whoever Jules latches on to.
SIU vs the officials
Southern Illinois has managed an absurd 93 penalty yards per game, nearly 10 more than D1-worst UAB last season. Even Northwestern’s fairly poor 58 penalty yards per game pales in comparison to the Saluki’s inability to avoid the yellow rag. If Southern Illinois’ lack of discipline continues into Week Three, it’ll be hard-pressed to find any momentum on either side of the ball. However, with so many transfers coming to Carbondale during the offseason, there was sure to be at least some disconnect to start the year, so after two games together, it’s time for the Salukis to find some discipline.