Miami (OH) and Northwestern have the same record at 1-2, but I doubt their fans are equally satisfied or disappointed with their seasons. While the RedHawks unsurprisingly lost to strong Kentucky and Cincinnati sides, the Wildcats lost to two seemingly weaker opponents in Duke and Southern Illinois. At this point in the season, Wildcat fans at least expected to be 2-1, but alas, that’s not the case. If Northwestern loses a third straight non-conference game this week, the rest of the season will certainly look to be a slow, difficult treck. A victory is the goal this week, but that will rely on stellar performances from the Wildcats’ key players.
Ryan Hilinski vs. medium to long passes
Personally, the highlight of Saturday’s game against Southern Illinois was Ryan Hilinski’s 32-yard completion to Malik Washington in the third quarter. After so many failed deep and medium passes, it was refreshing to see Hilinski hit his guy well past the chains. But that play was more the exception than the rule.
Hilinski thrives off short completions (4.95 yards per completion on average), and if the Wildcats’ offense is to become less stagnant, this has to change. The struggle has not been with receivers or playcalling either. Washington and Donny Navarro III have found space deep downfield, but almost each time Hilinski just can’t hit their hands. On deep balls, his passes often sail well ahead of the hands of his intended target, and when throwing to medium targets, Hilinski struggles with throws behind his receivers.
The Wildcats have to take advantage of open receivers deep downfield to take massive chunks of yards at once. If they keep relying on only short throws, we may continue to experience the same frustration.
Xander Mueller vs. Aveon Smith
Xander Mueller showed flashes of brilliance last year, but this season it seems he is realizing his potential. Mueller leads the ‘Cats in both tackles for loss and interceptions this year, and he looks dominant in penetration and coverage.
Against quarterback Aveon Smith, who didn’t even expect to start this year before Brett Gabbert’s injury, Mueller may be able to wreak havoc. Smith has already taken five sacks this year, and the Redhawks give up 3.5 sacks per game (114th in the FBS). Even if Mueller does not get sacks, he can still threaten Smith by opening up gaps for pass rushers like Ryan Johnson, who leads the team with 2.0 sacks on the season.
Even when Mueller is in coverage, Smith must continue to worry about his presence. So far, Smith has averaged one pick per game, and while that is certainly not the worst, it suggests that Smith is prone to a bad ball here and there. And when there’s a bad ball, Mueller tends to find it.
Evan Hull vs. fumbles
Evan Hull has been one of the few highlights of this season, specifically in the last two losses, in which he managed 435 total yards of offense. Despite this success though, the memory of two crucial fumbles against Duke and Southern Illinois are as fresh in the mind of Wildcat fans as his achievements. His second fumble of the year (against Southern Illinois) was especially concerning as it resulted from a simple strip action by the Salukis. There was no hard hit or helmet-to-ball contact as there had been against Duke, but rather, the arm of an SIU defender was enough to dispossess Hull.
In the coming week, running back coach Lou Ayeni will certainly work with Hull on keeping the ball secure, but Miami (OH) will challenge Hull’s progress. Against a strong Cincinnati side, the RedHawks forced three fumbles, and this week, they’ll work to repeat that same success. Hull will accrue plenty of yards, but another week with a crucial fumble in the opponent’s half cannot happen if Northwestern hopes to win close games.