Football: Northwestern offense looks to establish balance in upcoming contest against Southern Illinois


Angeli Mittal/Daily Northwestern

Senior receiver Donny Navarro III gets up after a touchdown catch against Duke. Navarro acknowledged the importance of getting both the rushing and passing attacks going.

Lawrence Price, Audio Editor

Boasting both talent and continuity, the Northwestern running back room entered the 2022 season as a clear strength for the team.

The Cats’ (1-1, 1-0 Big Ten) rushing group boasts two captains in running backs graduate student Andrew Clair and junior Evan Hull — an All-Big Ten honorable mention after rushing for more than 1,000 yards last season. Alongside promising sophomore Anthony Tyus III, the group added back junior Cam Porter, a Phil Steele preseason All-Big Ten fourth team nominee and Doak Walker Award Watch List candidate in 2021 before his season-ending injury. With so much talent, the group’s strong outlook was unquestionable.

However, after only picking up 49 yards on the ground against Duke (2-0, 1-0 ACC) in the first half, and its upcoming opponent Southern Illinois (0-2, 0-0 MVC) giving up only 58 during its last contest, NU’s offensive strength is being put to the test. 

“We’re built to run the ball,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Credit Duke, they’ve got really good players up front in their front seven, they’ve done a nice job.”

After running all over Nebraska with 214 yards on the ground in their season opener, NU’s run game looked smooth. However, Duke quickly stifled its momentum — the longest run the Cats had in the first quarter was 10 yards, which Hull accomplished on the first play of the game.

By the end of the first 15 minutes, NU was already down 14-0, and the Blue Devils were threatening to reach the end zone too, sitting at the Cats’ five-yard line. NU had to pivot from its original offensive game plan and look to passing as the main strategy to get back into the game. 

This led to junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski throwing 60 passes in the contest.

“It’s probably a different discussion if we aren’t down three scores,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought we came in with a really good plan, we just had a lot of one-man breakdowns.”

Fitzgerald emphasized that the offense’s goal is to be balanced between the pass and run games, but the team had to scratch this plan of attack due to its 21-point deficit early in the second quarter. In comparison to NU’s game against the Cornhuskers, both Hull and Porter saw a decline in rushing attempts.

Although both Hull, who led the team in receiving yards, and Clair emerged as targets in the receiving game, largely through screen passes, Duke’s ability to take away NU’s rushing attack and score so many points early on limited the Cats options.

Both graduate wideout Donny Navarro III and junior tight end Thomas Gordon reiterated Fitzgerald’s statement about balance and how it affects the receiving game.

“The run game helps a lot in the pass game when you get that going,” Gordon said. “A lot of our offense is a power run and the play action is a huge part of our offense, so when we don’t run the ball as well as we can, that kind of hurts our play action game.”

Gordon and Navarro III increased their receiving yard totals from the season opener to the Duke game, but said they understood how a successful run game opens more opportunities for the offense as a whole. 

This was clear during NU’s final drive of the contest, as Hilinski threw the ball on every play except for the last, which was Hull’s run up the middle with fewer than 20 seconds left. The running back had an open lane because of Duke’s expectation of a pass play. Even though the game didn’t end the way the Cats wanted it to, the final play represented the importance of keeping a run game going — it makes the offense harder to read.

“I really liked the call (Coach Mike) Bajakian made late in the game,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought the guys executed that really well, unfortunately we ended up about six inches short.”

NU’s upcoming opponent has only given up 78.5 yards per game in its first two contests. Still, it will be important for the Cats to establish their ground game early on.

Hilinski finished the day against the Blue Devils with 435 passing yards and two touchdowns, his most in his college career. However, the help of a strong run game will have a positive effect on the entire offensive attack. 

“When the run game is working then other things are going to pop open,” Navarro III said. “As the game went on, we were able to adjust, we were able to put drives together, whether it was running the football, or whether it was passing it.”

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