Football: Prolific performance, game-ending fumble headline Hull’s historic day


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior running back Evan Hull dodges a Duke defender. Hull recorded 213 receiving yards in the 31-23 loss.

Charlotte Varnes, Sports Editor

For the second time in the third quarter, Northwestern found itself at fourth-and-one. 

Running back Evan Hull came to the rescue, breaking through the sea of white uniforms to deliver a first down. But his efforts didn’t contribute to a score —  the Wildcats fumbled on the next play and Duke recovered.

Hull’s burst of speed and the offense’s subsequent failure was just one snapshot of a highlight-worthy performance for the Minnesota native amidst a broader lackluster offensive outing for NU. 

“It’s been two games that he’s been absolutely spectacular,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s the way he trains, the way he eats, sleeps, prepares – his commitment to being not a good teammate, but a phenomenal teammate. That’s what I want the heart of our football team to be, and I know he’ll lead us through a tough loss.”

This fire was evident in Hull’s performance on Saturday despite a broader NU offensive effort featuring misfires and miscues. Hull posted a career-high 14 receptions — nine more than his previous career-high — and also led the Cats with 72 rushing yards and 213 receiving yards, the latter statistic the fourth-most in a single game in program history. 

Hull’s role on the ground was initially central to NU’s strategy. He frequently connected with quarterback Ryan Hilinski beginning in the first quarter, but the Cats’ offense made little headway.

As the Blue Devils gained momentum, NU focused on its passing game. Down three scores, Fitzgerald and his staff chose to throw the ball rather than run. Hull leaned into playing a receiver role, breaking off big chunks of yardage off screens and underneath routes. 

The strategy worked. In the first half alone, Hull tied his previous record for single-game receptions. By the second half, Duke couldn’t stop the Hull-Hilinski connection. 

On a fourth-down attempt at the end of the third quarter, Hilinski fired a pass Hull’s way at Duke’s 38-yard line. Hull took the ball and flashed his speed once more, making it to the end zone in a highlight reel moment. Ball in hand, Hull said all he could think about was running – and he saw a lot of green, too. 

“(I was) trusting my speed and deciding that I’m going to get in the end zone no matter what,” Hull said. 

While he delivered a strong performance, Hull made a crushing error that sealed NU’s first loss of the season. With 12 seconds to go and the Cats searching for a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the score, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian tried to catch the Blue Devil defense off-guard and called a run. Hull broke to the end zone, but fumbled just before crossing the plane. A Duke recovery ensured the Cats’ loss.

Fitzgerald called Bajakian’s decision “gutsy”  and was proud that the coaching staff trusted the players with the ball. 

As a running back, Hull said he prides himself on ball security and he was in disbelief when he lost the ball. He credited his teammates with picking him up after and his faith as getting him through the moment. 

Hull’s dynamic performance on Saturday has its roots in practice and outside of football. He approaches each practice like it’s a game, he said. 

“(I’m) coming in with the mentality that I want to get better at something,” Hull said. “Every day, I write out what I want to get better at for that day… A lot of that shows up in the game.”

His connection with Hilinski has benefited from extra reps after practice and hanging out together off the field. Hilinski said they’ve spent more time together recently doing things like grabbing pizza and playing video games. This time off the field has helped them approach tough situations on the field together, he said.

“If it’s a big moment, it helps us make it smaller,” Hilinski said. “It makes us realize, ‘Hey, we’re playing a game. We’ve done this before.’”

There’s no doubt Hull met the moment Saturday — making history in the process.

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Twitter: @charvarnes11