If you went into Northwestern’s season opener against Nebraska expecting to see the Ryan Hilinski of 2021, then you were proven incredibly wrong.
What everyone witnessed in Ireland appeared not to be the Hilinski of old. Instead, fans were treated to a quarterback who was accurate, got rid of the ball quickly and made good decisions. Most importantly, the man under center did not make any major mistakes. After a year in which he had more interceptions than touchdowns, Hilinski did not turn the ball over a single time, nor was he sacked at all.
By all means, this was a very different Hilinski. Now in his second year in Mike Bajakian’s system — the first time he has had the same offensive coordinator in consecutive years — Hilinski looked much more comfortable, showing poise in the pocket and setting his teammates up for success.
As Northwestern fans now have an extra week to debate whether the offense is actually good or Nebraska is just bad, it’s time to take a deep dive into Hilinski’s play and let the film from the first game speak for itself.
On Hilinski’s first pass attempt of the 2022 season, he fakes a hand-off to Cam Porter before taking a three-step drop and firing toward the sideline for Malik Washington, who finished the day as the top pass-catcher with eight catches for 97 yards. The pass gets to the receiver and leads to a jumping grab for a first down. However, the ball was placed slightly behind its intended target, and while it worked out on this play, tighter coverage could result in a turnover next time.
Two plays later, Hilinski once again hits the out route, this time to Donny Navarro III for the first down. With an unblocked rusher coming right up the middle, Hilinski spends no time getting rid of the pass, firing right as Navarro makes his cut to the outside. The pass is perfectly in front of Navarro, unlike his last, and the throw is accurate despite the incoming pressure. The only possible gripe with this play is that Hilinski kind of ducks away from the defender so as not to get hit, but getting in a habit of ducking away while throwing can lead to inaccurate passes, an issue of his last year. However, this is very picky, and he does a great job of standing in the pocket and delivering the pass accurately under duress.
This throw was one of Hilinski’s best from last Saturday. Targeting Navarro again, Hilinski throws from a clean pocket right over the linebacker’s outstretched hands and into the hole in the defense, where Navarro hauls in the catch and is promptly drilled by the safety. It’s perfect ball placement and nearly perfect anticipation, although next time I’m sure Navarro would like the pass a split-second earlier.
After rolling out to his right on a play-action. Hilinski has two options here, and one defensive back guarding both of them. Seeing Thomas Gordon is open past the sticks, Hilinski stares down Marshall Lang in the flat to bait the defender into coming forward. This allows Gordon to get more separation, and he picks up a 23-yard gain as a result. The ‘flood’ concept works perfectly in this play, but the eye movement from Hilinski truly sells it and enables a first down.
The biggest play of the day came, once again, on a play-action pass. After a three-step drop, Hilinski recognizes the safety has been beaten and places the deep ball perfectly in the arms of Ray Niro III with no hesitation. The pass has a good spiral, is right where it needs to be and most importantly, results in six for the ‘Cats.
Despite seeming like just a screen pass, this is a great play by Hilinski. He stares left toward Gordon coming off the line before turning right to deliver an accurate pass to Evan Hull. The slight wait causes the middle linebacker to move in the direction of Gordon, giving the offensive line a head start to turn the play into a huge gain. It’s also worth noting that screen passes were consistently an issue for Hilinski in 2021, so the improvement against Nebraska is certainly encouraging.
This one is pretty simple; the pass here is behind Jacob Gill, which forces him to turn around and lose momentum. Due to the coverage, Gill wouldn’t have gotten the first down anyway, but Hilinski had enough time in the pocket to consider postponing his release. There is a very real possibility that Niro could’ve been open on the dig route running left if Hilinski pauses, but it’s hard to tell given the camera angle.
Hilinski takes his time surveying his downfield options, before eventually deciding on the dump-off to Hull near the sideline. Washington was likely the correct read running up the seam if Hilinski can fit the ball through a tight window, but he instead decides to wait and choose the conservative option, which pays off with a first-down pickup.
On a gigantic pickup, Hilinski has loads of time in the pocket and manages his space by shuffling well and moving his feet. Anthony Tyus III gets bumped slightly on the crossing route, but recovers and Hilinski hits him — slightly behind, but still in stride — where he has nothing but green grass in front of him. Hilinski shows great patience here, which was a huge part in the team’s scoring drive.
Finally, Hilinski caps of Northwestern’s 13-play 82-yard drive (in which he contributed 77 yards on 8-for-9 passing and a crucial fourth down run) with a touchdown stride to Navarro. After checking his first read, Hilinski fires a perfect pass into the back of the end zone where nobody but Navarro can catch it, earning six points for the Wildcats. Hilinski finished the first half 20-for-23 with 216 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
This play is tough to grade because of the lack of separation from the wide receivers as well as the collapsing pocket. The decision to not attempt the first down and instead throw a zero-yard completion is understandable and doesn’t have much risk. However, if Hilinski looks left, he might be able to get it to Gill or Navarro near the first-down marker. This is contingent on him being able to buy time from scrambling, so whether looking left is a possibility or not is up to chance.
Hilinski does a great job on the rollout of getting outside, then accurately firing back to Gordon inside. Once again, a successful play for Northwestern begins with either an option or a fake handoff, and it works well here.
On yet another play-action play, Hilinski keeps his eyes frozen on Lang in the flat to lure the defenders forward before hitting an open Washington. The pass is behind Washington enough that he has to juggle the ball for the catch, but that’s the only place Hilinski can put it given the outstretched arm of the linebacker in between.
With all the time in the world, Hilinski consistently proved what he can do with a clean pocket. Here, he hits Washington on a slant, which the receiver takes for 25 more yards after the catch. The slightly-behind pass makes Washington stop in his tracks rather than being hit in stride, one of the few examples throughout the game where Hilinski did not enable his receivers to continue their momentum.
This pass to Hull for a first down was the only completion of the fourth quarter. Hilinski attempted three passes on that drive — including one drop by Washington and one pass that missed Bryce Kirtz — before Northwestern ran the ball 18 straight times to end the game.
It’s safe to say Hilinski’s play in Week Zero in Dublin looked much improved from last season. Hilinski was accurate, made good decisions, and gave his teammates the chance to make plays. The biggest thing that stood out to me was how much more mentally in the game Hilinski looked compared to 2021. In his second year in Bajakian’s offense, it was clear Hilinski knew the playbook much better and could anticipate where his receivers were going to be at any given moment. This led to more decisiveness and the ability to get rid of the ball much quicker.
This also could be due to a simplification of Bajakian’s offense. Against Nebraska, Hilinski never really had to make more than two reads before completing a pass, and rarely switched his vision from the side of the field he was looking at to begin the play. In the NFL, you can’t get away with only being able to read half of the field, but in college, a quarterback can absolutely win games that way, especially in a system like Northwestern’s where Hilinski just has to get the ball to his playmakers and not try to do too much. Is simple a bad thing? Absolutely not. As he develops, Hilinski may grow into more of a full-field vision, but for now, he has a good start.
Let’s take a quick look at where exactly on the field Hilinski was the most accurate, courtesy of Pro Football Focus via our own Bradley Locker.
PFF's passing chart for Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski yesterday. Really utilized the middle of the field.— Bradley Locker (@Bradley_Locker) August 29, 2022
Hilinski earned a 77.2 overall grade, his highest since 2019. pic.twitter.com/7lEPCnKU19
In 2021, it was clear Hilinski had talent but lacked the touch to complete screens and short passes. Now, it seems he has improved that ability and showed great accuracy in short-range passes, going a combined 19-for-23 on passes under 10 yards.
He also paid extra attention to the middle of the field. Between the numbers, Hilinski completed 17 of his 20 passes.
As shown in-game, Bajakian has incorporated a lot of play-action into the offense. Hilinski went 9-for-16 for 141 yards and a touchdown on play-action passes while completing 18 of his 22 non-play-action passes for 172 yards and a score. Despite the lower completion percentage, Hilinski was graded higher by PFF while running play-action (77.6).
In maybe his most important improvement, Hilinski showed he can perform while under duress. With a clean pocket, Hilinski was 22-for-30 with 258 yards and both touchdowns. While under pressure, he completed five of his eight passes for 55 yards and was not sacked once.
As of right now, we have absolutely no idea whether this was a one-game wonder or not, much like Hunter Johnson’s three-score performance against Michigan State last year (although he did it in a loss that Northwestern was trailing for the entirety in). However, the signs given what we have seen are very encouraging, and if Hilinski can make the leap that the game film showed he has potential to, Northwestern may be a surprise team to look out for this season.