Football: Hilinski puts 2021 in rearview, completes special performance in Northwestern’s season-opening win


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski looks to the stands in the Wildcats’ 56-7 loss in 2021 to Nebraska. Northwestern avenged the blowout in a 31-28 win in Ireland.

Alex Cervantes, Daily Senior Staffer

Momentum. Drive times opportunity. Heart times hard work. Those are some of the staple phrases in Nebraska’s national television spot. Such narration could also be used to describe Northwestern junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski’s performance against the Cornhuskers on Saturday.

“I was just excited to go out there and play with the guys because man, we’ve been through a lot this offseason and we’re just excited to get out there and play football again,” Hilinski said. “Show the people who the Wildcats are and they don’t forget again.”

Hilinski, who didn’t find out he was the starter until right before kickoff, was a man on a mission in Dublin. His offseason preparation and confidence both internally and in offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian’s playbook was evident early in the game. 

He started out a perfect 8-for-8 before an incomplete pass around three minutes into the second quarter. His next pass? A 41-yard touchdown throw to senior wideout Raymond Niro III. The highlight was a much-needed boost for NU after opening the 75-yard drive down 14-3 and on the backfoot against the Cornhuskers.

“At the end of the day it was (about) playing within myself, playing within the offense,” Hilinski said of his early start. “Coach Bajakian called a great game. That opening script we had was great and made me feel really calm.”

The next series, the Cats were gifted the ball back courtesy of a Nebraska red zone fumble. Hilinski and junior running back Evan Hull advanced the ball into Cornhusker territory before NU was forced to punt. Nebraska quickly gave the South Carolina transfer the ball back, this time at his own 18-yard line.

What unfolded was masterful execution with the first half winding to a close. 

The drive started with a Hilinski completion to senior wide receiver Malik Washington, who had eight receptions for 97 yards on the day. A couple of Hull runs and a short completion later, Hilinski and the Cats offense found themselves in their own territory with a fourth-and-1. Come up short, and Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson would have just under two minutes to score in prime real estate with one timeout in his back pocket.

Hilinski lined up under center and, behind an offensive line which was fantastic all day, charged forward for the first down. It was a gutsy call in a big-time moment and Hilinski delivered. 

He then ripped off six consecutive completions, capped off by finding senior wideout Donny Navarro III in the end zone. Hilinski threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns with just three incompletions on 23 passing attempts in the first half. And for the first time since October of 2021, NU was leading a football game, all thanks to the California native. 

“We didn’t flinch,” Hilinski said, referencing the early deficit and comeback. “And tonight, I looked at a scoreboard, I saw 14-3 and I was like ‘this is great, we’re gonna be just fine’. And before you know it, (I) hit Ray on that big ball, he caught it, scored and then we just kept going from there.”

Out of halftime, Bajakian called six consecutive pass plays but the opening drive fizzled out. Thompson and the Cornhuskers responded by driving 88 yards down the field to reclaim the lead with a touchdown. Things continued to spiral for the Cats after a fumble and another Nebraska touchdown.

But Hilinski and Co. must have found the end of the rainbow, because they struck gold in the form of a baffling failure of an onside kick attempt from their opponent. Hilinski quickly capitalized on the Cornhuskers’ blunder, finding junior tight end Thomas Gordon and then Washington to put NU inside the 5-yard line. Junior running back Cam Porter capped off the drive with a 3-yard rushing touchdown to cut the deficit to four points.

A series of unfortunate events occurred for both squads — including multiple three-and-outs, a missed field goal and an interception — before Hilinski got the ball back in his hands in Nebraska territory with 12:20 to play in the fourth quarter.

He threw a pair of incompletions before hitting Hull in stride for a much-needed first down. Three plays later, Hull ran virtually untouched into the endzone for the game-winning touchdown.

Ultimately, it was a tale of two halves for Hilinski — but not in a bad way. In the first half, he was magnificent, looked comfortable in the pocket and helped secure a halftime advantage for the Cats. In the second half, as the running game was established behind Hull and Porter, Hilinski managed the game well, making throws when he needed to. 

Last season was headlined by inconsistencies under center, but if Hilinski comes back to Evanston and continues to play the way he did in Ireland, NU should have a much improved outlook in 2022.

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Twitter: @CervantesPAlex