Entering Week Three with a record .500, Northwestern has been given the chance to solidify the tone for the rest of this season. After quarters of turbulent play, the cats seem to have, temporarily at least, gone the most troublesome route, losing to SIU Salukis in an excruciating fashion. Now slowly heading toward the unsalvageable mark, here are five things NU can learn from their recent defeat.
1. Ryan Helinsky could be the problem or the solution
It wasn’t like a month ago when Ryan Hilinski was shooting darts all over Ireland, sparking a NU attack and getting the Wildcat excited. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the kids’ outing at Week Zero was his decision making. Avoiding objections and displaying a near-perfect ball position, Hilinski has been upbeat for the season.
As the third week approached, the purple arm was implicated in consistency complaints. After a nearly flawless appearance and outing to try to forget against Duke in his next game, there has been speculation about Hilinski’s improvement from last season to this season. Against the Greyhound, the QB offered a glimpse of consistency—consistency in turning the ball and sitting in the pocket for a long time. With three turnovers himself, Hilinsky continued to pry the attack off the field in moments that offered the possibility of turning away from an FCS opponent. Now that we’ve noted the positive correlation between Hilinski’s playing and the Wildcats’ record, it’s clear that Northwestern will either be hampered or motivated by quarterback performance.
2. Northwestern’s defense doesn’t have a compensation unit – at least not yet
In terms of consistency, the team’s defense provided an infrequent glimmer of hope during its three games. Against Nebraska, the defensive line fortified the trenches, allowing just over 100 ground yards. Against the Blue Devils, High School kept Riley Leonard in check, showing up just under 250 yards. Only once did these distinct combos stand out, their display in one game contrasted with that of the other.
Heading into a fierce battle against southern Illinois, the defense had the opportunity to bolster confidence in at least one of its chambers. In moments, the lunge’s defense slashed back against SIU’s half-backs, keeping them standing just 96 yards away for the duration of the game. But what the box score can’t show you are the moments those yards were scored, as the first crucial touchdown was captured by Gavon Williams Jr and Avanti Cox in the second half. In high school, gaps in coverage, with inexperienced cats playing, opened the way for Nick Baker to work his way up almost all day. If the Wildcats are hoping to bounce back heading into the span of their Big 10 battles, they will need to select at least one crutch they can rely on in a time of crisis.
3. The offensive line and Evan Hall will always be a bright spot
In a completely disappointing game – one that featured a loss against an FCS competitor that allowed 64 points for the Incarnate Word just two weeks ago – Evan Hall and the offensive line were affected.
Keeping Ryan Hilinsky’s pants clean all afternoon, Peter Skoronsky & Co. can’t be blamed for issues in the passing game (see: Objections and barely 200 yards away). The line pushed its anchors into the hashes for most of the day, pushing Saluki’s defenders away from the line to open holes for Hull. The junior average jogger averaged five yards per load on 25 grits. Naturally, the false pass catcher has now made eight fists — an impressive number, considering Hilinsky only connected on 27 passes all day. With NU’s remaining roster continuing to improve as the season progresses, Hull and OL should aim to remain a consistent source of energy for the currently struggling team.
4. Defensive urgency often hesitates for convenience
Duke opened his game against Northwestern by scoring 21 points in the first two quarters. Jim O’Neill’s defense tightened its restraints in the next quarter, shutting out the Blue Devils in the third inning. Once in the game in the vicinity of the “cats” fingertips, the defense allowed to close the game with ten points to the enemy ACC. Pat Fitzgerald proceeded to remove all players from consideration for the team’s Defensive Player of the Week award.
Fast-forward seven days, a clearly motivated defense charged between the hashes, and Salukis shutdowns throughout the entire first quarter. In a similar fashion to the previous week, the Wildcats played the game in alternating quarters of defensive strength and defensive vibration (Q2: 14 points; Q3: three points; Q4: 14 points). In conjunction with the sudden changes in defensive proficiency was an effort on this side of the ball. Granted, O’Neill’s defense kicked up, currently free from starters Coco Azema and AJ Hampton. However, D needs more constant pressure on opponents with available personnel. The immediate fix would seem to be to improve the unit’s motor so that the severely beating electric buzz visible in some quarters is preserved.
5. The games (losses) at Ryan Field have been mitigated by the Student Charged Division
Yes, a week two defeat to the Blue Devils opened Ryan’s Field play for the season. But a third-week loss to the Salukis began working in Ryan’s field with students on campus. No consolation for an awkward walk, but a little energy never hurt anyone.
Although the grandstands were packed for early years, with the older students returning to Evanston this week, the attendance of the interacting fans made the usually frustrating game less bleak. The first quarter was fun on both sides, with the winning Northwestern team less encouraging from the stands. Fans were expected to flock as the game slipped through the seemingly slippery “cats” fingers. All of that to say, as Ryan Field hosts games against Wisconsin and Ohio State in the coming months, knowing there will be tangible excitement within Ryan Field’s confines is a comforting reminder. Hopefully, Northwestern’s victories in those matches will make fans more inclined to stay until the final shot.