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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern records second loss in 31-24 defeat to Southern Illinois

An ugly, ugly day for the Wildcats.

@NUFBFamily on Twitter.

EVANSTON, Ill. — In beautiful conditions at Ryan Field Saturday, Northwestern (1-2) fell to Southern Illinois (1-2) in ugly fashion, marking its second consecutive loss to a non-conference opponent.

The Wildcats led early, but a strong fourth quarter from the Salukis gave them the lead and they never looked back, as Southern Illinois claimed the 31-24 victory over Northwestern.

Evan Hull once again led the ‘Cats in rushing, notching 124 yards and one TD. Ryan Hilinski wasn’t as efficient, however. The quarterback went 27-for-43 with two interceptions and only 213 passing yards, in addition to a fumble.

SIU dominated in the air, with quarterback Nic Baker throwing for 241 yards and completing 23-of-34 passes. Javon Williams Jr. and Jacob Garrett supported Baker on offense, combining for three touchdowns between them and 142 combined yards.

Southern Illinois received the opening kick, although not much came of the first drive. After a third-down conversion, sophomore Aidan Hubbard stifled the Salukis and got home for his first sack of the season to force a punt. However, the ‘Cats weren’t able to take advantage, as two Hilinski incompletions in five plays didn’t offer the opportunity. Xander Mueller earned a sack on the following drive, giving Northwestern the ball back.

The Wildcats then got going on their second possession. A second-down completion to Thomas Gordon moved the chains before a 22-yard quarterback keeper down the right sideline sent the ‘Cats across midfield. After riding the backs of Cam Porter and Hull, Hilinski punched it in on fourth-and-goal on a QB sneak.

On the first play of the second quarter, the Salukis struck back. Baker fired deep over the middle, where Tyce Daniel was wide open for a 57-yard score to even things up. Through the first three Southern Illinois drives, Baker was 9-for-9 with 116 yards and the touchdown, which knotted the game at seven.

Hull wouldn’t let the ‘Cats stay down for long. On his first play of the drive, he ran down the left sideline for a gain of 18. Then, Hilinski found Malik Washington, who made several defenders miss for a 23-yard gain. The Salukis forced a fourth down at their own 27, but Hilinski fired a pass to Marshall Lang on fourth-and-six to move the ‘Cats into the red zone. Hilinski then threw a completion behind Bryce Kirtz that would’ve been a touchdown if it was in front of him, but it didn’t matter, as Hull ran it in from a yard out anyway to put Northwestern up, 14-7.

Southern Illinois came back swinging. On the first three plays, Northwestern’s defense allowed a 10-yard completion, an 18-yard run and a 12-yard pass to get the Salukis to the NU 35. SIU had an opportunity to tie it up, but Daniel dropped what certainly would’ve been a large gain — and possibly a touchdown — before the Salukis missed a 42-yard field goal.

A three-and-out by NU gave Southern Illinois another shot. A screen pass brought the Salukis into Wildcat territory, but a tipped ball led to a diving interception by Xander Mueller, his second of the year.

After an overturned targeting call that would’ve put Northwestern in enemy territory, Hilinski was picked off himself over the middle. While going for the tackle, Hilinski was called for a low block, tacking on 15 yards to the end of the play. Immediately following, Baker found a wide-open Garrett from 18 yards out to even the score at 14.

With two minutes before the half, the Wildcats turned it over again. Hilinski targeted Donny Navarro on a screen on the left sideline, but Washington was pushed backward on his block, causing a collision. The ball ricocheted forward, where it was caught by Zach Burrola at the NU 36-yard line.

The ‘Cats were able to force a fourth down, but a wildcat formation run by Williams picked up the first easily. The Salukis were held to fourth down three plays later, and the FG was blocked and picked up by Bryce Gallagher. Gallagher took the return up the right sideline but cut inside as the clock expired and Northwestern did not get the opportunity to score again before half, leaving the score at 14-14 at the break.

Things didn’t get much better for the Wildcats in the second half. After a Northwestern three-and-out, the Salukis crossed midfield, and Baker evaded a third-down sack from Mueller to scramble forward for a manageable fourth down. Williams converted, but Southern Illinois wasn’t able to get much closer and the Salukis kicked the field goal to take their first lead of the game, 17-14.

Attempting to strike back, Hilinski launched a pass down the right sideline, but the ball was far over the head of Navarro. Two plays later, the ‘Cats caught a huge break. Hilinski threw a pick-six that would’ve given Southern Illinois the 9-point lead. However, the score was called back due to a defensive holding call. Then, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called on SIU head coach Nick Hill, advancing Northwestern past the 50. The ‘Cats weren’t able to move the chains though, and a fourth down screen to Hull that came up just short of the line to gain.

A sack from Ryan Johnson brought up a punt that gave Northwestern yet another opportunity to get in the end zone in the first half. The Wildcats appeared to have gained a sense of urgency, with a 32-yard completion to Washington putting NU in the red zone for the first time since the early second quarter. After three downs stalled, Adam Stage tied things up at 17 as the fourth quarter began.

Northwestern’s defense held Southern Illinois to third-and-long, but a questionable pass interference call on Rod Heard moved the chains after an incomplete throw. The Wildcats forced a fourth down, but Baker kept the ball on an option, advancing 20 yards on the run. The momentum seemed to shift completely to the Salukis, and Baker found Garrett again in the end zone three plays later as Southern Illinois took the 24-17 lead.

Trailing by the biggest margin of the game, Northwestern managed to cross the 50 before getting to fourth-and-two. With an oncoming blitz, Hilinski found Hull on a screen, who dove forward to keep the drive going. After rushing twice in a row to move the chains, the Salukis punched it out of Hull’s arms, creating a turnover at their own 29.

Nonetheless, Northwestern got the ball back, down seven with 6:07 to go. However, the opportunity was short-lived, as Hilinski fumbled on a sack from PJ Jules. After a scramble for the ball and missed recovery from Porter, the Salukis recovered at the NU 10-yard line. Two plays later, Baker ran in a QB sneak to go up 31-17 with 5:09 left on the clock.

With time for a comeback ticking down, NU marched down the field, with Hilinski eventually completing a touchdown pass to Washington in the near-right corner of the end zone to cut the deficit to seven. SIU recovered the onside kick attempt and converted one first down to finish off the ‘Cats, 31-24.

Northwestern will host Miami (OH) in a week when the Wildcats take on the Redhawks at 6:30 p.m. CST next Saturday.