In a less inspiring showing than what was on display in last week’s loss to Duke, Northwestern turned the ball over four times and allowed just as many touchdowns to the Southern Illinois Salukis. In the midst of trying to swallow another heartbreaking pill, here are the highs and lows from today’s game.
Northwestern’s pass rush
Did Nic Baker connect on every pass he attempted well into the second quarter? Yes. But the Salukis’ QB wasn’t operating without stress. Aidan Hubbard and Najee Story each toppled Baker in the first quarter, and purple jerseys appeared in the backfield for much of the afternoon. Nonetheless, in a far from perfect game, this unit wasn’t without its struggles. While hands were clawing Baker throughout the game, NU defenders failed to complete the takedown on a few too many occasions. Still, there’s reason for optimism in how the ‘Cats were able to shove their way past SIU’s offensive line, totaling three sacks on the day.
Pat Fitzgerald’s aggressiveness
There’s a well-documented history of Pat Fitzgerald opting for the road more travelled when it comes to high-risk decisions. It’s served Northwestern well throughout Fitz’s tenure, but in a game that mandated more grit than usual from the Wildcats, the head coach’s willingness to go for it on fourth down proved to be essential. A fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak on the Saluki’s goal line was rewarded with a touchdown. Even more daring was the wise choice to pass the ball on fourth-and-6, which eventually culminated in an Evan Hull touchdown prance. In what’s seeming to shape up as a season that will lack lopsided victories, Pat Fitzgerald’s growing fondness for fourth down attempts will serve as a vital aid.
The offensive line
Looking to rebound from an embarrassing showing against Duke, the ‘Cats trenchmen paved the way for Evan Hull’s Saturday success. Peter Skoronski led the way on passing downs, protecting his quarterback’s blind side all day. It’s easy to take an offensive line for granted when things are going well, but after witnessing the excruciating pressure the Blue Devils put on the Wildcats last Saturday, it’s important to appreciate the positive moments. It also helps that NU’s running back duo is so dynamic.
Honorable Mentions: Uniform combinations, rush defense, Ryan Johnson’s pre-snap hype
The entire secondary
Back to Nic Baker completing passes with ease throughout the day...Northwestern continued to struggle in coverage, again trying to lock up the field without starters Coco Azema, Cam Mitchell and A.J. Hampton Jr. Jim O’Neil frustratingly ordered up loose coverage for most of the day, letting his backs play way too far off the line of scrimmage. The lack of press coverage enabled a detrimental flurry of SIU screen/bubble passes to go unchecked throughout the afternoon. The secondary flopped in its protection of deep passes too, allowing a 57-yard bomb to Tyce Daniels in the first quarter and many more chain-moving completions the rest of the game.
The junior quarterback’s Ireland outing lingers as a distant memory. Will Ryan Hilinski return to his overseas form? It remains unclear, but there’s plenty of reason for skepticism based on his performance against an FCS secondary. Two interceptions — one of which was most definitely a product of poor decision-making — inhibited any chance of NU putting the game away when they had the chance. Add in a bounty of missed passes (see: overthrow to a wide-open Donny Navarro in the third quarter that would’ve resulted in a stroll into the endzone) and it becomes clear why Hilinski’s play is so problematic.
Receivers’ lack of separation
Evan Hull embodied the Wildcats’ offensive production — both in the realm of passing and rushing — against Duke. But today, in a more traditional, rush-focused outing, Hull left the burden of receiving on the receivers. No wideout stepped up in particular, as the group generated little to no separation against a typically lackluster SIU secondary. While Hilinski’s outing was far from inspiring, he shares the blame with his receiving corps — one that failed to offer help when it was most needed.
Honorable Mentions: Finishing on drives, Saluki mascot costume, turnovers, wildly long second quarter (and game)