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Five things we learned from Northwestern’s humbling loss to SIU

A new week, a similar story.

NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Entering Week Three with a .500 record, Northwestern was presented the opportunity to solidify the tone of the rest of this season. After quarters of turbulent play, the ‘Cats seem to have, at least temporarily, pursued the more upsetting route, losing to the SIU Salukis in gut-wrenching fashion. Now slowly heading toward an unsalvageable mark, here are five things NU can learn from its most recent defeat.

1. Ryan Hilinski can either be the problem or the solution

It wasn’t even a month ago when Ryan Hilinski was slinging darts around Ireland, electrifying NU’s offense and exciting Wildcat fans. Perhaps the most impressive facet of the junior’s Week Zero outing was his decision making. Avoiding interceptions and showcasing near-perfect ball placement, Hilinski offered optimism for the season.

Heading into Week Three, the purple arm was embroiled in consistency complaints. After a virtually flawless debut and a try-to-forget outing against Duke in his following game, speculation circled about Hilinski’s improvement from last season to this one. Against the Salukis, the QB offered a glimpse of consistency — consistency in turning over the ball and sitting in the pocket for too long. With three turnovers himself, Hilinski continued to take the offense off the field in moments that offered the potential to pull away from the FCS opponent. Having now observed the positive correlation between Hilinski’s play and the Wildcats’ record, it’s clear that Northwestern will either be hindered or catalyzed by its quarterback’s performance.

2. Northwestern’s defense has no redeeming unit — at least not yet

On the note of consistency, the team’s defense has offered non-recurring glimmers of hope throughout its three games. Against Nebraska, the defensive line fortified the trenches, allowing just over 100 ground yards. Against the Blue Devils, the secondary kept Riley Leonard in check, offering under 250 passing yards. These standout groups have only stood out once, as their showing in one game was contrasted by their showing in the other.

Heading into a dogfight against Southern Illinois, the defense had the chance to bolster confidence in at least one of its position rooms. At moments, the rush defense pushed back against SIU’s halfbacks, holding them to just 96 rushing yards throughout the game. But what the box score can’t show you is the moments in which those yards were tallied, with crucial first downs being picked up by Javon Williams Jr. and Avante’ Cox in the second half. In the secondary, lapses in coverage, with more inexperienced ‘Cats playing, opened the field up for Nic Baker to have his way nearly all day. If the Wildcats hope to rebound heading into their stretch of Big Ten battles, they’ll need to locate at least one crutch they can lean on in crunch time.

3. The offensive line and Evan Hull will always be a bright spot

In an otherwise utterly depressing game — one that featured a loss to an FCS opponent that allowed 64 points to Incarnate Word just two weeks ago — Evan Hull and the offensive line impressed.

Keeping Ryan Hilinski’s pants clean all afternoon, Peter Skoronski and Co. can’t be blamed for the issues in the passing game (see: interceptions and hardly 200 passing yards). The line shoved its cleats into the hashes for most of the day, pushing Saluki defenders off the line to open up holes for Hull. The junior running back averaged five yards per carry on a leg-grinding 25 carries. Naturally, the now pseudo-pass catcher notched eight nabs — an impressive figure, considering Hilinski only connected on 27 passes the entire day. As the rest of NU’s roster continues to improve as the season progresses, Hull and the OL must aim to remain a constant power source for the currently flailing team.

4. Defensive urgency wavers too much for comfort

Duke opened its game against Northwestern by posting 21 points in the first two quarters. Jim O’Neil’s defense tightened its constraints in the following quarter, shutting out the Blue Devils in the third period. As soon as the game entered the vicinity of the ‘Cats’ fingertips, the defense allowed a game-sealing ten points to the ACC foe. Pat Fitzgerald proceeded to omit all players from consideration for the team’s Defensive Player of the Week award.

Fast forward seven days, and a clearly motivated defense charged between the hashes, shutting out the Salukis for the entirety of the first quarter. And in a similar fashion as the week prior, the Wildcats played the game by alternating quarters of defensive sturdiness and defensive shakiness (Q2: 14 points; Q3: three points; Q4: 14 points). Coinciding with the abrupt changes in defensive competence was effort on that side of the ball. Granted, O’Neil’s defense is banged up, currently void of starters Coco Azema and A.J. Hampton. Still, the D needs to more consistently clamp opponents with the personnel available. The most immediate fix appears to be improving the motor of the unit so that the electrifying, hard-hitting buzz visible in some quarters is maintained.

5. Games (losses) at Ryan Field are softened by an charged student section

Yes, the Week Two defeat to the Blue Devils opened play at Ryan Field for the season. But, the Week Three loss to the Salukis began action at Ryan Field with students on campus. It’s no consolation for the embarrassing outing, but a little energy never hurt anybody.

Though the bleachers were just filled with first-years, as older students trickle back to Evanston this week, an engaged fan presence made a typically depressing game a little less dreary. The first quarter was enjoyable on both sides, as a winning Northwestern team was less forcefully cheered on by the stands. Expectedly, fans poured out as the game slipped through the ‘Cats’ seemingly slippery fingers. All this to say, as Ryan Field hosts games against Wisconsin and Ohio State in the coming months, the knowledge that there will be a palpable excitement within Ryan Field’s confines is a comforting reminder. Hopefully, Northwestern victories in those matchups will make fans more inclined to stay until the final snap.