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Hilinski’s Heaves, Week Three: Not the ideal outcome

Let’s just say things didn’t go as planned...

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

Ever heard the phrase that results minus expectations equals happiness? For Northwestern’s football program, this phrase has generally encapsulated their efforts to “dethrone” impact Big Ten programs, including Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and many others. In fact, by defeating Nebraska in Dublin as a 13-point underdog to open up the season, they once again were leaning into the underdog narrative.

Yet, what happens when David is no longer facing Goliath? Northwestern has now been a double-digit home favorite in back-to-back weeks, yet, has come up short in each of those games. The latest defeat? A 31-24 loss to Southern Illinois, who had entered the game winless in their first two matchups against FCS programs. Simply put, it was a very disappointing outcome for the Wildcats, and they’ll look to bounce back in a major way.

As is the case for all teams, Northwestern ultimately will only go as far as their quarterback will take them. After all, it’s the most important position in all of football for a reason! Unfortunately, struggles under center played a major role in the program’s 3-9 season in 2021, and with redshirt junior Ryan Hilinski retaining the starting job, the hope was that further progression would allow him to help lead. After all, he was a four-star recruit who started as a freshman for South Carolina! Initially, in the team’s critical victory in Dublin, that hope seemed to be translating into reality, though, since then, things have gotten a bit more complicated.

The Statistical Overview

Generally, the beginning of a review doesn’t start with the ending, but let’s break some rules here. Statistically, it’s rather obvious that this game did not go as anticipated for Hilinski, who averaged just five yards per pass attempt with two critical interceptions along the way. Meanwhile, the peripheral metrics aren’t much better; he earned a below-average 58.4 overall Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade, produced just one big-time throw (charted as high-end plays from PFF) on 44 attempts, and his 66.7% adjusted completion percentage (accounting for drops) points to a clear lack of accuracy. As such, his ranks among qualified Big Ten quarterbacks in these key metrics aren’t ideal, to say the least:

  • PFF Grade: 62.9 (12th among 13 qualified quarterbacks)
  • Big-Time Throw%: 1.3% (12th)
  • Adjusted Completion Percentage: 69.1% (11th)

From just a quick glance, this would appear to be problematic, but the style of play certainly has had some limitations as well. Simply take a look at his passing chart from Saturday’s loss:

No quarterback in the B1G is attempting a pass 20+ yards down the field on a lower percentage of their pass attempts than Hillinski (8.5%), who ranks in the bottom-three in yards/attempt (8.3), PFF passing grade (56.6), and adjusted completion percentage (27.5%) on those passes. As we’ll get to, this lack of aggressiveness and ability to push the ball down the field showed up in a major way against Southern Illinois, and makes the offense extremely reliant on production after the catch. The problem? When defenses are able to not have to fear being beaten vertically, they’re able to condense the areas of the field in which they feel compelled to cover, which, in turn, leads to worse production after the catch. All told, something has to give here.

After all, it isn’t as though Hilinski hasn’t been given clean pockets to operate from — he’s been pressured at the eighth-lowest rate (18.4%) among Power Five quarterbacks this season. In this game, meanwhile, that number dropped down to 12.7%. Ultimately, this comes down to scheme and decision-making, which, so far, has eliminated any sort of explosive element from the offense.

To be fair, though, it’s always wise, both from a context added standpoint and just a different method of taking in information, to put your eyes to what the data is telling you. Sure, a subjective measure is going to lead to a lot of potential biases, yet the more strategies of analysis, the better. In this case, though, it all leads back to same conclusion.

The Good

Let’s start off on a positive note, shall we? In spite of the disappointment, there were still productive plays that are worth recognizing.

While Hilinski has only scrambled one time this year — perhaps a credit to the offensive line for the clean pockets they’re giving him — he showcased whatever mobility he had in a 22-yard gain here:

Particularly in this game, where Northwestern operated with a gap, downhill rushing scheme, Southern Illinois’ edge rushers had every reason to bite inside, and Hillinski was able to take advantage of that. Is this going to be a staple of the offense moving forward? Almost certainly not, but it was a smart read nonetheless, and it at least puts some semblance of a rushing threat on tape, which doesn’t hurt.

Since Hilinski isn’t throwing the ball much down the field, finding easy avenues for production after the catch is key. That’s where Malik Washington comes into play. Working mainly out of the slot from this game, the senior averaged an absurd 10.5 yards after catch/reception, and that’s something Hilinski should continue to take advantage of:

Now, this isn’t “Washington’s Heaves,” but it points back to a main point — given the frequency that this offense is having Hilinski target players over the middle-of-the-field on in-breaking routes, peppering Washington, the team’s most productive wide receiver based on yards/route run (1.98), would be ideal. While he leads the team in targets, his 23% target share has room to go up, especially after that number was down to 17.5% this past Saturday. If you’re not creating explosive plays on your own, you need to get the ball in the hands of players that can, and more designed touches for Washington would help Hilinski out tremendously.

Meanwhile, to his credit, though he hasn’t scrambled much, Hilinski has done a generally strong job of not letting pressure on him turn into sacks, while his production when under pressure doesn’t fall off much, if at all. Here, he shows why:

This may not seem like a “highlight-reel” play, but the net difference between taking a sack and moving the chains is sizable in this situation. When you’re not producing chunk plays, it’s imperative to stay on schedule, and Hilinski, for the most part, does an admirable job at that in terms of evading sacks. Combine that with the pass protection he’s receiving, and there aren’t going to be a lot of negative plays with this offense. Yet, will there be enough positives? So far, that hasn’t been the case, which leads us right to the less stellar aspects of this game.

The Bad

A key aspect of quarterback play is understanding the situation at hand, and what truly moves the needle given that information. To be honest, this can often be a trait that separates quarterbacks; if the goal of a third down is to be able to move the chains, then the pass needs to be in position for that to actually be the case. If not, you’re essentially committing a glorified turnover, especially when your defense is allowing 30 points a game this season against a substandard strength of schedule.

Unfortunately, for Hilinski, passes behind the sticks in notable situations has become a consistent theme:

Unless Pat Fitzgerald was willing to go for it in his own territory, this is a pass that isn’t past the line of gain, and since it is such a tight window, also provides no opportunity for yardage after catch. A pass with that little space to work with carries a lot of risk, yet with little reward to compensate for that, as was the case here:

Now, the fact that this would have been an interception had it not been for a defensive penalty isn’t on Hilinski as opposed to the drop by running back Cam Porter, but what benefit would have been made from a completion here? There are multiple defenders closing in on Porter, and in spite of the fact that Malik Washington appears to be gaining a step of separation, Hilinski is very quick to check it down, as he was in the first face of pressure in a key situation here:

Now, taking a sack given Northwestern’s special teams concerns would certainly have been not ideal, though perhaps the fact that Hilinski didn’t see a path to evading the one edge rusher who mainly only comes free because of him bailing from the pocket is the main problem here. Regardless, with a chance to take the lead, this pass leads to a field goal attempt. Obviously, that’s not a disastrous outcome, though still leaves you wanting much more.

From there, down by two scores, Northwestern found themselves facing a Southern Illinois defense content with playing off coverage content with them picking up small yardage in an effort to keep the clock running, and Hilinski obliges:

In all honesty, a throw-away is a better outcome here simply because the clock stops, which is critical when considering it took them 16 plays and four minutes to score in a “hurry-up” situation; once this drive was finished, the chances of a Wildcat comeback were marginalized significantly. At the end of the day, this all speaks to lack of impact plays from the passing game, though it wasn’t all for a lack of effort. The problem? The actual execution of those attempts:

We referenced Hilinski’s troubles throwing 20+ yards down the field earlier, and it certainly showed up here. The first pass, in particular, where Donny Navarro III clearly is in position to waltz into the end zone after the cornerback falls, was a specific turning point in this game; it was a whiff on the type of opportunity that hasn’t come along often for Northwestern. However, this isn’t the only area where the accuracy concerns for Hilinski showed up. When you’re throwing over the middle of the field, throwing a catchable pass is imperative not just for the sake of a positive play, but simply for the receiver’s health — forcing them to make any major sort of adjustment puts their body in a spot to take the type of hit that can lead to notable medical consequences. Regrettably, this showed up a lot in negative fashion on Saturday, which this being the notable one:

It’s certainly the right read considering how open Navarro III was, but the placement of this ball — very high and out front — forces him to put himself in a position that leads to a hit where he, thankfully, was able to recover from, but that may not always be the case. Plus, had it not been for a targeting penalty, this goes from at least a 15-yard completion to a third and long situation, which is quite the negative change in circumstances. It definitely wasn’t one of his better performances in terms of accuracy, which one could have hoped had taken a strong step forward after his performance in Dublin.

For the most part, outside of a high frequency of passes behind the line to gain, Hilinski demonstrated the ability to go through the progressions asked of him. Still, there were some stumbles in that regard.

A major reason why some quarterbacks avoid the middle of the field is because of the risks associated with throwing a pass in a crowded area — it’s a common area for more turnover-worthy plays. Now, when the receiver is, indeed, open, this is a more efficient area of the field with more opportunities after the catch. That being said, that also requires to ability to read the opposing defense’s linebackers, which doesn’t happen here:

That, my friends, is the example of a turnover-worthy play. Clearly, Hilinski is baited by Southern Illinois’ linebacker, who does a tremendous job cutting back up to make a play on this pass. Consider this another pivotal point in this game, as it immediately sets up Southern Illinois for a game-tying touchdown, rather than Northwestern potentially bringing a two-score lead into the second half while also getting the ball after halftime. That’s a major shift, and it wasn’t all working over the middle of the field where mistakes were made:

That was far too close to being taken back the other way, and is an example of Hilinski being fazed quite a few times in this game under pressure, including multiple costly intentional grounding penalties, as well as two costly sacks. The lack of positive plays was already problematic, but when combined with too many negatives, it puts Northwestern in a near impossible position to win games, particularly with tougher opponents on the way.

The Verdict

As you could have guessed simply from Hilinski’s statistical measures of performance, this was not the best game for him, especially when factoring in the opponent. Unfortunately, in this case, the statistics were not deceiving us; he demonstrated clear issues with a lack of aggressiveness, inconsistent processor and accuracy woes.

At their best, Northwestern can operate in the short passing game, opening up yards after catch spots for the likes of Malik Washington and running back Evan Hull. As things stand, though, there are too many limitations to their passing attack, which, come conference play, is going to be a notable barrier — teams simply will not have to be worried about any sort of big-play threat.

Sigh. Things looked so promising after their win against Nebraska! Hopefully, this week’s matchup against Miami of Ohio resembles that more, and proves that their initial offensive success wasn’t just mere luck of the Irish. Hey, perhaps all they needed was to not be a double-digit favorite again!