Football: Ryan Hilinski wins first start for Northwestern, but rushing performance headlines offense


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Sophomore transfer quarterback Ryan Hilinski peers across the defense. Hilinski finished 12-20 for 88 yards in his first start as a Wildcat.

John Riker, Sports Editor


Backed up against his own goal line, sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski aimed a pass towards junior receiver Malik Washington. The pass veered off-target and into the arms of an Ohio defender.

Even with Northwestern up 14-0, the moment had to conjure memories of the Cats’ four-turnover performance against Duke last week. But the Bobcat defender couldn’t corral the ball, and a play that seemed primed to end up a interception return touchdown instead merely resulted in a fourth down.

The Wildcats (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) dominated Ohio (0-4, 0-0 MAC) in a 35-6 rout, riding an explosive rushing attack and a bounce-back defensive performance to their second win of the season. But the passing game — a major question mark coming into the week — was not among NU’s highlights, with Hilinski only passing for 88 yards on 12-20 passing.

“There are always backup quarterbacks that are thrust into the role,” Hilinski said. “Some crack under pressure and some rise to the occasion. I wanted to be one of those guys that rises to the occasion.”

Hilinski was told throughout the week to prepare to be the starter while sharing reps with senior quarterback Hunter Johnson, the starting quarterback to open the season. When the Cats took the field for their first drive, it was Hilinski who ran out to the field to lead NU’s offense.

“I said it after the (Duke) game — we got to take care of the football better and I felt it was the right time to make a change,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We thought Ryan played pretty well, came in and gave us a spark after Andrew (Marty) went down.”

He didn’t have to do much, thanks in large part to another prolific performance from sophomore running back Evan Hull. The Cats opened up the scoring on a 17-yard Hull rush 11 minutes into the game, then padded their lead with a 90-yard Hull dash — NU’s longest rush since 1961. Hull finished the day with 216 yards to pair with his two scores, while the backfield as a whole accounted for 373 yards on the ground.

NU’s stout defensive performance gave Hilinski plenty of breathing room. After Ohio kicker Tristian Vandenberg missed a 31-yard field goal on the game’s opening drive, the Cats tightened up their coverage and did not allow the Bobcats in the red zone again until the fourth quarter.

Add in Chris Bergin’s forced fumble and interceptions by sophomore safety Brandon Joseph and senior safety Bryce Jackson, and NU’s offense had plenty of prime opportunities to put Ohio away.

86 of Hilinski’s 88 yards went to the starting wide receiver trio of sophomore Bryce Kirtz, graduate Stephon Robinson Jr. and junior Malik Washington. Hilinski said since working with the wideouts in March, they have expressed trust in him.

“A lot of guys came up to me before the game, during the game and after the game saying and reiterating that they believe in me, that they trust me,” Hilinski said. “That speaks volumes. In this program, you earn everything.”

Facing a Big Ten opponent next Saturday in Nebraska, the Cats won’t be able to count on facing a Group of Five or FCS opponent any longer. And with this week’s emphasis on the establishing ground attack over testing Hilinski’s arm, NU’s confidence in its quarterback room is still in question.

NU ensured that Hilinski wouldn’t be asked to do too much early on, relying on the running backs while easing him into action with high-percentage, short yardage throws.

Sometimes, it worked. After the Cats built their 14-0 first quarter lead, Hilinski opened the second quarter by completing all six of his passes — with just one completion of over 10 yards — though the drive stalled in the red zone ended on an errant 24-yard field goal.

Red zone inefficiency was the most concerning struggle. After Hull beat his defender to the edge on the Cats’ first touchdown, NU turned its next four red zone trips into just six points.A missed field goal left points on the board, while Hilinski’s botched handoff attempt to graduate transfer running back Andrew Clair ended another promising drive.

“We’ve just got to execute cleaner,” Fitzgerald said. “It looked like we missed some cuts and we missed some targets where we got calls and we’re not targeting people the right way.”

While the Cats are content to celebrate a wire-to-wire victory, they will travel to Lincoln next week with a quarterback situation that is no closer to its resolution.

“The only thing that matters to me is a dub on our schedule,” Hilinski said. “You might want to have more attempts, you might want to have more yards, but at the end of the day, you can’t look at individual stats. If you win the game, that’s all that matters.”

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Twitter: @john__riker

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