Riker: With thrilling comeback in season opener, Northwestern football feels fun again


Daily file photo by Jonah Elkowitz

Northwestern players celebrate in a 2021 victory over Rutgers. The Wildcats won their first Big Ten West game since the 2020 season in a 31-28 thriller against Nebraska.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

For the thousands of spectators in the Aviva Stadium stands and millions more watching stateside on Saturday, Northwestern football looked like one of the most dynamic teams in college football in a 31-28 win over Nebraska.

Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski, named the starting quarterback mere minutes before the opening kickoff, completed 20 of his 23 first-half passes for 216 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Junior running back Cam Porter looked like his old self with 94 rushing yards and a score, yet he took a backseat to fellow junior Evan Hull, who accounted for 174 total yards and a touchdown himself. A defense that looked out of sorts in coordinator Jim O’Neil’s first season at the helm finished with three takeaways and was a calling card in the fourth quarter. Even junior punter Luke Akers made a splash in his debut.

To those who watched NU in 2021 when the Cats failed to win a single Big Ten West game such a performance feels incomprehensible.

Call it a symptom of an even year. Blame Nebraska coach Scott Frost’s dubious decision to try an onside kick in the third quarter. But with a statement win to open its season, NU has built serious momentum heading into a manageable non-conference schedule and made football fun for its fans again.

While the Cornhuskers flew to Ireland with a revamped coaching staff and playmaking transfers in quarterback Casey Thompson and receiver Trey Palmer, the Cats underscored their continuity at the coordinator positions and experience in the system as confidence boosters.

Much of that continuity, though, was with a team that failed to compete for most of the 2021 season. In five starts as a sophomore transfer, Hilinski threw more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three). NU’s hallmark, its defense, nosedived to the bottom of the Big Ten statistically in its first year under O’Neil. The Cats lost all six of their Big Ten West games, including a 56-7 blowout to Nebraska, and did not register a comeback win in any of their contests.

Sure, there were glimpses of NU’s 2021 season on Saturday: conservative red zone play-calling, a missed 36-yard field goal, injuries in the secondary and missed tackles by the Cats’ defenders on a 46-yard touchdown sprint by Nebraska’s Anthony Grant.

What made the Cats’ performance so remarkable is that they overcame all of that and seemed to get better as the game progressed, while the Cornhuskers imploded. After the Cats fell behind 14-3, Hilinski led the offense on a minute-long drive to answer back, finding senior receiver Raymond Niro III down the middle for a 41-yard touchdown. A couple drives later, he led a masterful two-minute drive that culminated in a 6-yard touchdown pass to breakout performer Donny Navarro III, giving NU a 17-14 halftime advantage and the Cats their first lead since Oct 16, 2021.

Another turning point came midway through the third quarter, when NU surrendered a pair of touchdowns to open the second half and fell behind by a double-digit deficit, 28-17. Hilinski responded with a touchdown drive off a failed Nebraska onside kick to cut the deficit to four points, then Hull diced up the Cornhusker defense a couple drives later and scored the go-ahead touchdown.

The Cats’ offense shined, with improved offensive line play, explosive plays from the receivers and backs and a career-best performance from Hilinski. But NU’s defense finished the job by holding Nebraska scoreless on its last six drives, including two interceptions of Thompson.

Junior linebacker and captain Bryce Gallagher called the Cats’ time in Ireland “a business trip” in a Monday press conference, and NU certainly took care of business to open its season. The Cats won the turnover battle, overcame a 11-point deficit and appeared to find its starting quarterback for the 2022 season in Hilinski. That’s a drastic change from where they stood in 2021 and from where many expected them to be to start the year, even if it is a one-game sample size.

By winning on an international stage and performing in the most high-pressure moments, NU did everything possible Saturday to earn back the attention of the Big Ten and to give Wildcat faithful something to look forward to this fall.

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Twitter: @jhnriker