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Hilinski’s Heaves, Week Two: A mixed bag

The junior quarterback showed areas for correction in his second outing of the season.

NCAA Football: Duke at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

In spite of a crushing loss, Northwestern’s offense was prolific yet again on Saturday. The Wildcats racked up 511 total yards, marking the second straight week surpassing the 500-yard mark, in large part due to 278 scrimmage yards compiled by star running back Evan Hull.

The anchor of NU’s offense is, ultimately, quarterback Ryan Hilinski. Hilinski posted another standout statline: 36-for-60, 435 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, 7.3 yards per attempt. The 60 attempts established a new career high for the junior, while his yardage ranked eighth in program history for a single game and was a personal best.

On the surface, Hilinski maintained his good play from Week Zero in Dublin. While Hilinski did perform certain aspects very well, the tape left some elements to be desired. Hilinski’s PFF grade came in at 52.3; the company charted him with two big-time throws but also five turnover-worthy plays.

Hilinski’s average depth of target (aDOT) of 8.6 yards reflected a quarterback attempting to push the ball downfield, yet a number of his attempts were on screens or checkdowns to Hull. Along the same line of thinking, a significant chunk of his yardage came after the catch. Below is his pass chart from PFF.

Some of the throws were just dump-offs to backs, but others were more nuanced.

Let’s start with Hilinski’s first touchdown pass: a quick-hitter to Hull in the flat on 4th and 3. While Hull appears to be Hilinski’s primary read from the snap, the QB does a nice job waiting for the RB to clear the outside linebacker, at which point Hilinski hits Hull in stride.

Likewise, Hilinski was quick to notice mismatches with Hull lined up as a receiver. Take this third down in which Hilinski recognizes a late close from the middle linebacker, which provides a chance for the Californian to throw a touch pass between two Blue Devils.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as realizing that nobody is covering your uber-talented weapon up the field and granting him a chance to accrue serious yardage.

It wasn’t all easy throws for Hilinski, however. The quarterback had some terrific tosses in the seam, particularly to tight end Thomas Gordon.

Gordon put the world on notice with this one-handed snag in the first quarter. After a fake handoff to Andrew Clair, Hilinski squares his shoulders just enough to hit Gordon on the backshoulder. This play alone demonstrates the chemistry between the two: Hilinski to even attempt a throw in the lone spot where his security blanket can get it, and Gordon for trusting Hilinski to direct it in the precise area.

This seam strike may have been Hilinski’s best on the afternoon. After correcting the positioning of his pass-catchers, Hilinski leads Gordon perfectly against the Mike linebacker in Cover 3 Buzz. This placement is perfect from Hilinski, as he allows Gordon to make a lunging catch.

Hilinski also demonstrated an ability to thread the needle when it mattered most, including on this third-down pass inside of six minutes left. Hilinski progresses from Malik Washington to Donny Navarro III and rips a dart right between two Duke defenders for a touchdown.

Moreover, play action seemed to cure any offensive ills that Northwestern showcased on Saturday. Per PFF charting, Hilinski had a 69.4 offensive grade and 15.5 aDOT on 15 play-action dropbacks, stark numbers compared to his 46.6 grade and 6.4 aDOT when not involving playfakes.

Hilinski posted a number of impressive throws on play action, including on this deep curl to Bryce Kirtz, a crosser to Genson Hooper Price and a boot completion to Kirtz.

Why did Hilinski grade so poorly in PFF’s eyes? A big reason was a lack of anticipation and, in conjunction, making late reads.

In the second quarter, Navarro runs an out-breaking route, which Hilinski targets. The issue is that the QB throws well beyond Navarro’s break, enabling a Duke DB to bat the ball away.

Now in the latter stages of the third, Hilinski attempts to connect with Navarro again, this time on a dig route. Yet by the time Hilinski uncorks this throw, the linebacker has already rolled over to nearly intercept the pass.

The junior could only get away with throwing tardily for so long before it bit him, which occurred on this third down in crunch time. Hilinski backpedals and throws off his back foot, intending to hit Washington on an out, but Duke’s Brandon Johnson undercuts it for the pick. This ball needs to be out at Washington’s break for the optimal throwing window.

Hilinski also had a number of ill-placed balls. One such occasion included a whip route to Washington that’s thrown well behind where the receiver anticipates it.

This goal-line fade to Navarro probably should have been called pass interference. Nonetheless, Hilinski underthrows his receiver, preventing him from high-pointing the ball.

Beyond late reads, Hilinski simply didn’t see some open receivers. Some instances of not dissecting the entire field happened in key situations, such as this third down, where Washington has space after a comeback route at the bottom of the screen.

Similarly, Hilinski elected to throw short to Hull on this third rather than hitting Navarro beyond the sticks.

Finally, Hilinski’s pocket presence did little to avoid pressures or sacks. The quarterback had his arm hit on a sack in the third quarter, resulting in a Blue Devil takeaway. While left guard Josh Priebe does get beaten, Hilinski needs to climb the pocket to prevent a chance at having the ball swatted.

Further, Hilinski wasn’t actually taken down on this red zone snap, but he does not sense the rush to his right whatsoever — allowing for disruption and a throw that sails to Hull.

Statistically, Hilinski has had a tremendous beginning to the 2022 campaign, becoming the first Northwestern quarterback to amass 300+ passing yards in each of his first two games of a season. Altogether, the gunslinger has done well to avoid turning the ball over, distributing the rock to talented skill position players in space and maintaining offensive momentum.

At the same time, the quarterback must improve his anticipation of defenders’ breaks, reading of the field and awareness within the pocket if he truly wants to reach the next level. Against a Southern Illinois team that has surrendered 783 passing yards and 10 aerial touchdowns through two games, Hilinski should have ample opportunity to right the ship this Saturday.