Football: Inside running back Evan Hull’s emergence as Northwestern’s unstoppable receiving threat


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior running back Evan Hull darts through the Duke defense. Hull finished with career-highs in receptions and total yards in a 31-23 loss to the Blue Devils.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

September might just be junior running back Evan Hull’s month. As a sophomore in 2021, he recorded two games with two touchdowns and more than 100 yards on the ground. 

But in the Wildcats’ first contest in September 2022, Hull brought his dominance to another level. Statistically, he had the most prolific game of any Big Ten running back in his team’s passing game in the 21st century. 

Hull touched the ball 31 times — 14 receptions and 17 carries — and finished with 278 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. According to the Cats’ game notes, he is the first Big Ten player since 2000 to record more than 190 receiving yards and 50 rushing yards in a single game, and the only Big Ten running back with more than 13 receptions in a game. His 268 receiving yards across the first two games rank fifth in the entire FBS and first place among running backs.

From the junior’s historic yardage totals to his fumble on NU’s final offensive play, Hull’s fingerprints were all over Saturday’s performance. But the Cats lost, 31-23, and those gaudy yardage totals didn’t amount to positive change in the standings. 

After watching the film and returning to the practice field early this week, Hull and his coaches are moving on to their upcoming game against Southern Illinois, but they’re not forgetting Saturday, either. In conversations with the Daily Tuesday, Hull and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian reflected on what went right on the field, what it means going forward and the motivation of such a close outcome.

“After a loss, it’s not always smiles, which is to be expected,” Hull said. “Guys take it seriously. There are some emotions there, but overall, guys are motivated, guys are confident and we’re going to keep stacking work days.”

The Cats’ utilization of Hull in the passing game isn’t a new concept — he led the Big Ten in receptions by a running back in 2021. Bajakian said the offensive staff asks Hull to take on routes and techniques usually utilized by receivers. Still, Hull’s game-high in receptions before Saturday was six, a number he eclipsed before the second half was over.

For most of the game, Hull’s production sparked the offense. Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski targeted the Minnesotan mostly in the short passing game and on screen plays, and Hull used his explosiveness and elusivity to turn those short passes into big gains. Hull finished the game with more than 150 yards after the catch, comprising the clear majority of his final yardage total. 

In his Monday press conference, coach Pat Fitzgerald highlighted the execution of the screen plays as a major difference between the Cats’ showings in the Nebraska and Duke games and said it was a focus during the bye week. Bajakian traced the offense’s emphasis on improving screen plays back to the middle of last season. 

“Our running backs and Evan do a great job of understanding [timing], our offensive line does a great job of understanding that, even our quarterbacks play a role in that process in attracting the rush to them,” Bajakian said. “It’s an overall understanding of the scheme and doing a great job executing.”

Hull said he believes the added repetitions in practice made the play feel natural on the Ryan Field turf.

“We work it so much in practice, especially the O-Line’s blocks are everything,” Hull said. “I’m reading them based on how they get out and the tempo and the timing, and we work that to a T in practice. When it gets to the game, it’s almost second nature of how things hit, so it’s really cool to see that happen.”

As for the final offensive play call — a run play to Hull that culminated in a game-ending goal-line fumble — Fitzgerald and Bajakian have no regrets.

Bajakian even said they considered countering their pass-heavy playcalling one play earlier, but chose to pass on 2nd-and-5 to eliminate the risk of running out of time. When the Cats faced 3rd-and-1 a play later, a first-down conversion on a rushing attempt would have paused the clock long enough for Hilinski to spike the ball and set up for one last try at the end zone.

Combined with the Duke defense’s set-up — more geared toward stopping the pass than the run — and his mentality of putting the ball in the hands of his playmakers, Bajakian said giving Hull the ball with the outcome in the balance made total sense.

“Coach Anderson and Coach Fitz and the whole staff had done a great job of identifying that the run would be there,” Bajakian said. “We just needed the right situation and then, like (Fitzgerald) talked about, who better to do that than Evan?” 

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Twitter: @jhnriker

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