Rapid Recap: Southern Illinois 31, Northwestern 24


Joanne Haner/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern defenders try to break up a Southern Illinois pass. The Wildcats dropped their second consecutive home game in a shocking 31-24 loss to the Salukis.

For Northwestern fans that didn’t think an outcome could be more crushing than last week’s 31-23 loss to Duke that ended with a goal-line fumble, the Wildcats’ follow-up performance tested that notion.

Entering as three-touchdown favorites, NU (1-2, 1-0 Big Ten) slogged through a turnover-prone afternoon against previously winless Southern Illinois (1-2, 0-0 MVC) in a disastrous 31-24 defeat. A Saluki defense that gave up an average of 49 points per game against Incarnate Word and Southeast Missouri in its first two contests forced the Cats into two interceptions and two fumbles.

Here are five takeaways from Saturday:


  1. Wildcats lose the turnover battle to winless Southern Illinois

NU gave away the game Saturday. Southern Illinois intercepted junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski twice in the second quarter, almost pulled away on a pick-six in the third quarter that was overturned by a holding penalty and forced junior running back Evan Hull to cough it up in the fourth quarter. On the next drive, the Salukis effectively put the game away with a strip sack of Hilinski, their fourth turnover of the game. Southern Illinois turned those four turnovers into 14 points.

The Cats also committed more penalties than their FCS visitors and were limited to just 213 passing yards. The Salukis’ offense didn’t do anything out of the ordinary for most of the game, Southern Illinois’ best offense was just NU’s miscues. 

  1. Hilinski regresses in third start of the season

Throwing more than 300 passing yards in each start was probably unsustainable for junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski, but his first start performance was a jarring drop-off from the mastery he had shown through the season’s first two games. The Salukis intercepted Hilinski twice in the first half and limited him to a 40 percent completion percentage. The Cats’ screen game, a staple in last week’s comeback against Duke, was almost non-existent and resulted in a deflection-turned-interception in the second quarter. In the second half, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian dialed up deep passing plays to spark the offense, but Hilinski overthrew a couple of receivers and couldn’t find a rhythm on offense.

NU probably planned to ground-and-pound their way to their first win, but with the outcome hanging in the balance, the Cats needed more from their leader. A Southern Illinois defense that surrendered 64 points to Incarnate Word in its season opener held Hilinski’s group to 14 points through the first three quarters. The junior finished the afternoon completing 27 of 43 passes for 213 yards, a fourth-quarter touchdown and three total turnovers.

  1. Wildcat secondary starts slow

Between its injuries and inconsistent play, the secondary should be the most concerning aspect of the Cats’ season so far. A unit that missed senior defensive back A.J. Hampton Jr. and junior defensive back Coco Azema last week entered Saturday with sophomore defensive back Theran Johnson starting in place of Week 0 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Cam Mitchell.

The Salukis never powered their way into the lead, but the defense had breakdowns and missed tackles unbecoming of a Power Five team playing an FCS opponent. Southern Illinois’ quarterbacks combined to complete 15 of their first 17 passes, including a wide-open 57-yard passing touchdown from quarterback Nic Baker to tight end Tyce Daniel. After the Salukis’ first interception, Baker took advantage immediately with an 18-yard touchdown strike to tie the score.

  1. Hilinski, Gallagher show off their wheels

Hilinski isn’t known as a dual-threat quarterback, but after slimming down over the spring and summer, he flashed his speed on the Cats’ first scoring drive.

With the game scoreless and NU looking to gain momentum on its second drive, Hilinski kept a read option play and took off to the right side. He found the open field, tearing down the sideline for a gain of 22 yards before a Saluki defender finally pushed him out of bounds. Hilinski capped off the drive with a 4th-and-1 sneak at the goal-line that gave the Cats their first touchdown of the game.

Another NU player making an unexpected Wildcat dash — junior linebacker and captain Bryce Gallagher. On the final play of the first half, Gallagher recovered a blocked field goal and sprinted behind an entourage of blockers as the last seconds of the half ticked off the clock. The Salukis finally brought Gallagher down after an exhilarating 58-yard return to end the first half.

5. The schedule is about to get much more difficult

Saturday’s performance doesn’t bode well for an NU squad that has a potent Miami (OH) team next up. After that, it’s back to Big Ten competition with road games against Penn State and Maryland and a challenging homecoming game against Wisconsin to open October. The Cats couldn’t take care of business against Southern Illinois, and while they’ll have time to correct course, there are no easy wins ahead.

After a memorable season-opener in Dublin, the Cats’ stateside performances have been a startling reality check.

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