Football: Northwestern upset at home in stunning loss to Southern Illinois


Joanne Haner/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski. Hilinski went 27 for 43 and threw two interceptions in Northwestern’s loss against Southern Illinois.

Saturday’s matchup should have brought life back to Ryan Field.

The first years dashed down the sideline, a sea of purple and white, before packing the stands. The ‘Go U’s’ were deafening, and the ‘time to move the chains’ cheer echoed. Students moved their arms in sync while the band played, swaying side to side.

It was Northwestern football that got in the way of things. Miscue after miscue, interception after interception, an eager home crowd filled with first years gradually turned into a near-empty, silent student section as the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter. 

“You can feel them on the field,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You can feel their emotion. We didn’t give them a whole lot to cheer for.”

For the second time in as many weeks, the Wildcats dropped a home matchup they were significantly favored in. First, it was Duke. On Saturday, it was Southern Illinois. 

NU (1-2, 1-0 Big Ten) – less than two years removed from a Big Ten West title – fell to the Salukis (1-2, 0-0 MVC), an FCS team that entered the game winless, in a flurry of offensive and defensive woes.

The Cats’ secondary was the biggest question mark at kickoff. Three starters from NU’s season-opening win against Nebraska – junior defensive back Cam Mitchell, senior defensive back A.J. Hampton Jr., junior safety Coco Azema – were out with injuries. Junior safety Jaheem Joseph, who led the defense while filling in for Azema against Duke, was out as well. 

A mix of underclassmen and inexperienced players took their places, which was evident at key points of the matchup. Some members of the secondary were not in the right place at the right time, such as when they allowed SIU to score a wide-open, 57-yard touchdown to open the second quarter.

Fitzgerald said the Cats’ secondary has adopted a “next man up mentality” in the wake of injuries. As inexperienced players work to earn more playing time, Fitzgerald said it’s on him and the other coaches to set them up for success. 

“Knowing that group is competitive as they are, they’ll learn from it, they’ll grow and get better,” Fitzgerald said. 

Junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher also credited the defensive newcomers. The unit didn’t change its mindset when younger players stepped in, he said. Instead, Gallagher said they embraced them and granted them confidence and trust. 

NU’s offense didn’t endure injuries like the defense. But its execution still looked rusty. The Cats fumbled four times, junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski was sacked three times and he threw two interceptions in less than a minute of play. 

Fitzgerald pointed to the turnover battle as one of the deciding factors in the loss. He said NU often runs turnover circuits in practice, but may need to adjust entering next week. 

Hilinski was on and off throughout the game, going 27 for 43 for 213 yards and scoring a rushing touchdown. Fitzgerald said he has “great confidence” in Hilinski, and they’ll evaluate Saturday’s play entering next week’s practices. 

“We’re going to go back and watch the tape, and he’s going to want some plays back,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to have to take care of that. That’s the bottom line.”

Now 1-2, the Wildcats have just one game left of non-conference play before a daunting Big Ten schedule. Both of their losses have come against non-conference opponents at home – something that will be on their minds well into the fall. 

“Everybody in that locker room is ready to win the Big Ten Championship,” senior wide receiver Malik Washington said. “We’re going to carry that (feeling) all throughout the next few games.”

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