Football: Ready for redemption: Northwestern’s offense looks to show its improvement against 2021 opponent Duke


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski looks to the sideline during last season’s loss to Nebraska. Hilinksi was able to help the Cats get revenge against the Cornhuskers in their Week Zero matchup, 31-28.

Lawrence Price, Audio Editor

With less than a minute and a half to go in the fourth quarter, junior linebacker Xander Mueller’s sliding interception near midfield meant two things: excitement and a Week Zero win in Dublin against Nebraska.

However, this game-winning play would have been a difficult result to believe early in the contest. Less than three minutes into the game, Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson hit wide receiver Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda on a go-route, culminating in a 32-yard touchdown and early lead for the Cornhuskers.

Although NU (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) was able to overcome the early deficit, the Cats now face Duke (1-0, 1-0 ACC) on Saturday, a team that jumped out to a 30-7 lead by halftime when they faced off last season.

“This feels much more like an opener,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ll need to improve in a lot of areas. I thought we found a way to win in (our first game), but didn’t really play the way we wanted to play collectively.”

Fitzgerald said early-game scoring is the number one aspect the team needs to fix. Even in victory, the Cats struggled in this area against Nebraska, not scoring a touchdown until nearly the 11-minute mark in the second quarter. In NU’s 12 matchups last season, its opponents scored first in nine of the games. When the Cats scored first in the other three games of the season, they were victorious.

“That’s something that’s been a point of emphasis, especially with how fast Duke started on Friday night,” Fitzgerald said. 

Duke was able to manhandle its Week One opponent, Temple University, in a 30-0 victory. Even with Duke’s confidence coming off a victory and three-game win streak against NU, junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski believes there will be a different outcome this Saturday.

Although Hilinski did see the field in the loss to Duke last year, the recent Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week was splitting time with quarterbacks Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty, and he didn’t make his first appearance until the fourth quarter.

Now in his second year in the offense, Hilinski feels more secure at the helm and is ready to groove.

“That just gives me a boost of confidence and being more comfortable and calm in the pocket,” Hilinski said. “Having these competitors, these types of players around you, it helps elevate your game a lot.”

Hilinski’s performance in the opening game gave the Cats’ offense something it lacked last season — consistency at the quarterback position. The mix of up-and-down performances from all three players, paired with Marty’s injury woes, meant none of the quarterbacks broke away from the pack.

Yet, after the California native completed his first eight passes and accumulated 216 passing yards in the first half against the Cornhuskers, it was clear that he was ready for Year Two. He also benefited from the strong protection from his offensive line — a group Fitzgerald named as the team’s offensive players of the week alongside Hilinski — and the electricity from a backfield led by senior running back Evan Hull and junior running back Cam Porter.

“It obviously makes my job a whole lot easier,” Hilinski said of the running backs. “As long as we gel and work together it’s going to be a good deal.”

Coach Mike Bajakian’s offense has a difficult matchup ahead, facing a Blue Devils team that is coming off a shutout win. But with a confident quarterback under center in Hilinski, dynamic running back room, impressive performance from the o-line and more, the Cats’ outlook is a lot different from last year’s in Durham.

“That just gives me a boost of confidence in being more comfortable and calm in the pocket,” Hilinski said. 

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