Football: Propelled by strong all-around performance, Northwestern rights ship in dominant 21-7 win over Rutgers


Gabe Bider/The Daily Northwestern

Evan Hull evades the Rutgers defense. Hull and Andrew Clair combined for 135 rushing yards as Northwestern scored a 21-7 Homecoming victory against Rutgers.

Patrick Andres, Senior Staffer


Against the co-inventors of college football, Northwestern reinvented itself.

On the heels of a 56-7 beatdown at the hands of Nebraska, the Wildcats regrouped over their bye week. The result was a Homecoming performance that showcased NU’s offensive and defensive talent and a 21-7 win over Rutgers — the Cats’ first Big Ten victory since December 12, 2020 against Illinois.

NU (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) clamped down on a Scarlet Knights (3-4, 0-4 Big Ten) team that started the season 3-0 and played Michigan tough in a 20-13 loss on September 25. The Cats forced nine Rutgers punts, the Scarlet Knights’ most since December 12, 2020 against Maryland.

“We’ve played some really good quarters in some games defensively, but this was probably our best game collectively as a defense,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “That group’s got a ton of pride. We’re getting a little bit more experience now as the season goes along.”

The defense set the tone in the first quarter, as Rutgers’ first four drives gained 11, -1, 20, and 10 yards, respectively. The Scarlet Knights’ first drive ended when junior defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore brought down quarterback Noah Vedral for a loss of four. Graduate student linebacker Chris Bergin blew up the second drive by breaking up a Vedral pass on third and 11.

Adebawore finished with seven tackles, a career high that equaled his combined output against Ohio and the Cornhuskers. Bergin racked up nine tackles, his eighth consecutive game with eight or more dating back to the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game.

Rutgers, hounded by Adebawore and Bergin as well as sophomore linebacker Bryce Gallagher, tallied its only touchdown on an 18-yard Vedral strike to wide receiver Bo Melton midway through the second quarter. The Scarlet Knights didn’t score again.

“[The most important thing is] physically executing what our coaches have instilled in us and put in the gameplan, and most importantly just having fun,” Bergin said. “We had a lot of fun out there today and it showed.

The defense’s dynamism allowed the offense to open up the playbook to an unprecedented extent. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw for 267 yards — his most since November 9, 2019 against Appalachian State while at South Carolina — and two touchdowns, recording the fourth multi-touchdown game of his college career.

Junior wide receiver Malik Washington, who took a Hilinski pass to the house for a 64-yard touchdown in the first quarter, credited the defense’s success with making the offense’s job easier.

“We love those guys,” Washington said. “When they’re making plays, we’re able to make plays. When they’re making those stops, we know we need to be able to capitalize on that and make a touchdown.”

Graduate student running back Andrew Clair and sophomore running back Evan Hull both contributed to a robust running game, despite the fact that NU ran for just 135 yards. A 27-yard Clair run in the second quarter was the longest of the day by either team, and the former Bowling Green Falcon rode three straight carries on first and goal to the Cats’ final touchdown with 7:33 to play. Hull added 53 yards on 25 carries and a 12-yard reception.

“The best thing about those two guys is they’re physical,” Hilinski said. “It’s good to have those guys in the backfield because one, they’re tremendous runners, and two, they can close out a game just like they did today.”

Despite a sound afternoon from defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s unit, Fitzgerald stressed that NU had more work to do — especially with a top-10 Michigan team looming next Saturday.

“We still gotta get better with our eyes, and we still gotta get a little better fundamentally,” Fitzgerald said. “Still, there was a lot of positive growth today.”

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