Football: Northwestern rides explosive rushing attack, big defensive plays to 35-6 win over Ohio


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Ryan Hilinski looks to pass. The sophomore quarterback threw for 88 yards in his first career start, as Northwestern rode a robust rushing attack to a 35-6 rout of Ohio.

Patrick Andres, Senior Staffer


Thus far, Northwestern’s 2021 season has been defined by slow starts. Against Ohio, the Wildcats went to work early to reverse that trend.

The Bobcats mounted a lengthy opening drive, and had first-and-10 from the Wildcats’ 18-yard line out of the gate. NU’s defense stood tall, though, taking advantage of a pair of Ohio penalties to force a field goal — which the Bobcats’ Tristian Vandenberg missed from 31 yards.

“That first drive was huge,” sophomore safety Brandon Joseph said. “We realized they were in a tight zone in the red zone, and we were just trying to hold them to a field goal. For them to miss that, that just got our confidence rolling for the rest of the day.”

From there, the defense went on to force three turnovers and hold the Bobcats scoreless until the game’s final play. On offense, the Cats ran for 373 yards and put up their highest point total through four games in a 35-6 win.

The star of the show was sophomore Evan Hull, who racked up 216 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns. It was the Maple Grove, Minnesota native’s largest single-game rushing total since he burned Massachusetts for 220 yards and four touchdowns on November 16, 2019.

Hull touched the ball twice on NU’s initial series, which ended in the first of graduate student Derek Adams’ season-low four punts. When graduate student linebacker Chris Bergin stripped Ohio quarterback Kurtis Rourke for the Cats’ first takeaway, NU’s running game kicked into high gear. Hull carried the ball three times for 11 yards, freshman running back Anthony Tyus III took back-to-back direct snaps for nine yards, and Hull put the Cats on the board with a 17-yard touchdown run.

“Evan’s tough,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s a guy that just embraces being the feature back, and his work ethic is incredible. He’s a guy that’s first in the building and last to leave.”

When the Bobcats punted again, Hull provided the game’s offensive highlight. On first and 10 and with the ball on NU’s 10-yard line, he burst through the Ohio defense and raced down the far sideline. The result was a 90-yard touchdown, the Cats’ longest scrimmage run since Bill Swingle’s 95-yard gallop in a 45-0 win over Boston College on September 30, 1961.

“He’s playing at a really high level,” Fitzgerald said, noting his importance to the team in the wake of sophomore Cam Porter’s season-ending injury. “We’re gonna need him. If he continues on this path, he puts himself in the conversation to be an all-Big Ten level back.”

Graduate student kicker Charlie Kuhbander’s 24-yard field goal in the last minute of the first half extended NU’s advantage to 17-0 at the intermission. By that point, the Cats had already amassed 297 rushing yards — 154 in the first quarter and 143 in the second. Graduate student running back Andrew Clair’s 32-yard gain on third and seven en route to Kuhbander’s field goal represented NU’s second-longest run of the afternoon.

The defense held serve in the second half, picking off its second and third passes of the season. First it was Joseph, who snared graduate student defensive lineman Jeremy Meiser’s tip of a Rourke pass to snuff out the Bobcats’ first drive of the fourth quarter. Then it was senior defensive back Bryce Jackson, who grabbed an errant Armani Rogers pass off a carom to set up the Cats’ final touchdown and earn the first interception of his career.

NU’s success on the ground and on defense alleviated much of the pressure on sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski, making his first career start after transferring from South Carolina. Hilinski completed just 12 of 20 passes for 88 yards, but hit on seven straight attempts in the first and second quarter. Hull credited his quarterback’s success for keeping Ohio’s defense on its toes, helping the Cats’ running backs to a bountiful afternoon.

“[The quarterback and running game go] hand in hand,” Hull said. “When Ryan makes plays, then the running backs start making plays, too.

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