Football: Price: After an unacceptable loss to Southern Illinois, Northwestern has a lot of soul searching to do


Joanne Haner/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior tight Thomas Gordon stands on the sidelines. After a career day against Duke last week, the Houston native wasn’t targeted as much in the loss to SIU, catching two passes for 18 yards.

Predicting any sports game is nearly impossible, but there’s always one certainty — upsets can happen.

Particularly for college football, this was the case last week, as No. 8 Notre Dame found themselves on the losing side in their contest against Marshall or Appalachian State’s fanbase taking over the College Station streets after beating No. 6 Texas A&M, only to name a few.

This week, Northwestern (1-2, 1-0 Big Ten) joined the company, falling 31-24 to Southern Illinois (1-2, 0-0 MVC), a team ESPN projected to have less than a five percent chance to win. This was the Salukis’ first win against a Big Ten team in sixteen years.

But that’s not the issue, nor is the feeling of losing to another team from Illinois. The problem is the inexcusable play on both sides of the ball and downward spiral the Cats went on.

On the defensive side, the secondary — one of NU’s most experienced position groups coming into the 2022 season — became the Cats most inexperienced in the blink of an eye. On top of being without senior defensive back AJ Hampton Jr. and junior safety Coco Azema due to injuries, surprisingly, NU was also without their No. 1 defensive back, junior Cameron Mitchell.

Junior safety Jaheem Joseph, who replaced Azema, didn’t play in the contest, either, and Hampton Jr.’s replacement, junior defensive back Garnett Hollis Jr., was on and off the field as well. For the majority of the contest, junior defensive back Rod Heard II and redshirt senior defensive back Jeremiah Lewis were the only players with significant in-game experience.

Of course, injuries are uncontrollable, but SIU took advantage of the Cats misfortunes, leading to Salukis tight end Tyce Daniel going uncovered for a 57-yard post-route touchdown, or fullback Jacob Garrett’s two nearly identical play-action touchdowns in the red zone.

Not only were the consistent blown coverages an issue, but it was a constant problem that continued to surface on each of SIU’s scoring drives. Without much experience in the sky room for the Cats, the Salukis ran similar plays multiple times, like Garrett’s touchdown grabs, before NU was able to adjust — something players with in-game reps would do quickly. 

NU cleaned up its play at the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball, continuously putting pressure on SIU quarterback Nic Baker, with three sacks and 10 tackles for loss,and limiting its opponent to 96 yards on the ground. However, the secondary and linebackers in coverage’s lack of consistency outweighed this success. 

The Cats turned the ball over four times to the Salukis’ one, two interceptions and two fumbles, each of them preventable errors.

Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski never found his groove throughout the game, and most of the turnovers were because of that. Hilinski’s first interception was an attempt to thread the needle in a tight window, not recognizing linebacker Branson Combs was not only in the area, but that his target senior wideout Malike Washington was already double covered, leading to an easy pick. SIU scored on the next play.

The second came on the next possession, less than a minute later. Washington’s inability to block his defender on a screen pass targeted for graduate wide receiver Donny Navarro III resulted in both Washington and the defensive back bumping into Navarro III, moving him out of place, and linebacker Zach Burrola into perfect position for the snag. Luckily for NU, the defense was able to block SIU’s field goal attempt, but both of these plays were unacceptable.

In comparison to last year’s quarterback Hunter Johnson, Hilinski’s struggles in the contest felt very similar to Johnson’s three games last season. Both looked amazing in their season opener, solid in game two and the wheels fell off in game three. Just food for thought.

After the two interceptions in the second quarter, NU went on to fumble on back-to-back possessions in the fourth, leading to another seven points for Southern Illinois.

Credit must be given to the Salukis for the defensive plays, but the Cats must look at their own performance and understand that each of these turnovers were forced upon themselves. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, there are no excuses for fumbling consecutively, nor is Hilinski and the offense’s mental lapse to a team ranked 114th out 115 in passing yards allowed per game and 106th in points allowed per game.

The Cats do have to move on, though, but the game presents a question — if they struggle against a FCS Salukis team that on paper should have been their easiest opponent, what hope is there for the games to come?

Although the streak of Big Ten contests hasn’t approached yet, currently keeping NU in contention for a division title, wins will only be harder to come by here on out, so NU has a lot of soul searching to do in the next few days, and it’s impossible to point the finger at one department as the reason that needs changing. This loss was on the defense, offense, and coaching staff. 

Hopefully, the defeat was a turning point for the Cats and lights a fire under them, but with all the injuries and terrible play, at least for me, it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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