Rapid Recap: Northwestern 21, Rutgers 7

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Jonah Elkowitz/The Daily Northwestern

Stephon Robinson Jr. evades a defender. The graduate wide receiver caught five passes for 115 yards in Northwestern’s 21-7 win over Rutgers.

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer


Football


After Northwestern’s 56-7 loss at Nebraska two weeks ago, one of the worst of Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, it looked like the Wildcats’ chances at bowl eligibility were slipping away.

But, NU (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) rebounded with a strong showing, both offensively and defensively, against Rutgers (3-4, 0-4 Big Ten) on Saturday during Homecoming Weekend in a 21-7 win. The Cats’ defense allowed just 222 yards, and sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns in his best performance yet.

On NU’s first drive, Hilinski completed a 47-yard pass to graduate wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. But the pass was underthrown, and Robinson couldn’t gain any additional yardage despite having an open lane to the end zone. Kicker Charlie Kuhbander proceeded to miss his fourth kick of the year and the Cats failed to take advantage of the big gain.

After forcing Rutgers to punt twice, Hilinski and Robinson Jr. connected again for a 22 yard gain, and a few plays later, Hilinski found junior wide receiver Malik Washington, who trucked a defender en route to a 64-yard touchdown.

After holding Rutgers scoreless for four consecutive drives, quarterback Noah Vedral found wide receiver Bo Melton for a 46-yard gain. They connected again to tie the game after the Cats left Melton wide open in the end zone, who toe-tapped the grass before falling out of bounds. But NU responded during its next drive on a two-yard pass from Hilinski to tight end Marshall Lang.

Both teams got off to a slow start in the second half. After NU tried an unsuccessful fake punt on fourth down, Rutgers drove down the field, only to take a delay of game penalty on fourth down and miss an ensuing 33-yard field goal. The two teams combined for just 117 yards over 15 minutes.

In the fourth quarter — after a long, penalty-filled drive where the Cats gained 30 yards on a sideline interference and pass interference call — graduate running back Andrew Clair crossed the goal line for his touchdown with NU. Clair was the Cats’ leading rusher, with 63 yards on 13 attempts.

Takeaways:

1. Ryan Hilinski finds success with the deep ball

In the first half, Hilinski threw five passes of 19 or more yards, including the 64-yard touchdown to Washington. Those five passes alone made up 184 of Hilinski’s 231 passing yards in the opening 30 minutes. Prior to today’s game, Hilinski averaged just 126 yards per game.

Robinson Jr. was Hilinski’s favorite target, with 5 catches for 115 yards. He showcased his explosiveness by catching four of the six passing plays of 19 or more yards. Robinson Jr. and the other receivers with big gains today included Washington, who finished with five catches and 84 yards and touchdown and senior receiver JJ Jefferson — catching his first passes since 2019 — with three catches for 44 yards.

2. Northwestern’s defense looks way better

The Cats had 4 sacks and 11 tackles for loss in the game. NU held the Scarlet Knights to 222 total yards of offense, and stopped 10 of their 14 conversion attempts on third down. Junior defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore continued his stellar season, with seven solo tackles, including four for a loss, and a sack.

Graduate linebacker Chris Bergin also had a strong game, with seven solo tackles. Bergin used his speed to close in on and take down Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral from across the field late in the third quarter on third down, which led to the missed field goal on fourth down.

Additionally, sophomore linebacker Bryce Gallagher finished the game with 10 tackles.

3. Kuhbander continues 2021 struggles, Adams builds on past performance

A successful 44-yard field goal attempt early in the game from Kuhbander would have put the Cats up 3-0. Instead, he missed his fourth kick of the season. Meanwhile, graduate punter Derek Adams continued his strong season. He punted seven times for 279 yards, averaging nearly 40 yards per punt.

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Twitter: @gablcarroll