Football: What to Watch For: Northwestern searching for stabilizing victory Saturday against Miami (Ohio)


Joanne Haner/Daily Senior Staffer

Coach Pat Fitzgerald locks arms with players as Northwestern heads out of the tunnel before its game against Southern Illinois. NU is searching for its first win at Ryan Field in 2022 after back-to-back defeats this month.

Northwestern’s final non-conference game against Miami (Ohio) awaits Saturday before the Wildcats (1-2, 1-0 Big Ten) charge full steam ahead into conference play. The RedHawks are also 1-2 on the season, with a win against Robert Morris sandwiched between losses to Kentucky and Cincinnati.

In its first game in front of a full student section, NU was left reeling after a shocking loss to Southern Illinois. Here are a few things to look out for as the Cats battle Miami this weekend in desperate need of a rebound victory. Here’s what to watch for on Saturday night:

Northwestern slow starts and Miami quickly scores

The RedHawks will enter Ryan Field boasting the same record as the Cats. While NU has fallen victim to slow starts, Miami is quite the opposite. Dating back to the 2021 campaign, the RedHawks have put points on the board on their opening drive in five consecutive games.

In a pair of contests against then-No. 20 Kentucky and Cincinnati, Miami controlled the game early. The RedHawks scored a touchdown on their opening drive in Lexington before the Wildcats responded. Kentucky eventually took a 13-10 lead into the intermission, before cruising to a 24-point victory. Against Cincinnati, Miami snagged an early 10-point advantage it held until the 9:54 mark in the second quarter. The Bearcats would go on to win 38-17. 

NU can take solace in the fact that both Kentucky and Cincinnati fell behind quickly, but found success in the later stages of the game. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has commented on the problematic trend of the Cats’ early first-half lapses, most recently the 14-3 and 21-0 deficits to Nebraska and Duke. 

Despite the second-half collapse, NU did briefly enjoy a first half advantage against Southern Illinois. So what better time than the present to put four full quarters of winning football together with the Big Ten gauntlet looming?

Depleted secondary could spell trouble for the Cats

Notably absent from NU’s clash with the Salukis last weekend was a trio of defensive cogs in senior defensive back A.J. Hampton Jr. and junior defensive backs Cam Mitchell, Coco Azema and Jaheem Joseph.

The Cats’ secondary has been marred by injuries and uneven play to start the 2022 campaign. Fitzgerald characterized the group’s play Saturday as “inconsistent” but said the more inexperienced defensive backs have an opportunity to learn and grow in the veterans’ absence. 

If the aforementioned core trio remain inactive for the weekend’s contest, the improvement will need to come quickly, as NU is currently allowing 285.3 yards through the air per game.

Nevertheless, the Cats’ secondary will be facing a young RedHawks quarterback with first year Aveon Smith. After star signal caller Brett Gabbert was injured in the opener against Kentucky, Smith took his place as the starter. Through three games, Smith is 25-for-47 with 284 passing yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

If NU’s defense can get the young gun rattled early, it could be a much more pleasant outing for the hosts at Ryan Field.

Who wins the quarterback battle?

Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski’s form has steadily declined since the win over the Cornhuskers in August. 

The Orange, California, native has thrown the ball 103 times in the last two contests, completing 63 of those throws for 648 yards and three passing touchdowns. He has also thrown three interceptions and lost a fumble in that span.

Hilinski’s QBR has dipped since the opener, culminating in a season-low rating of 17.6 against the Salukis. He’ll be looking to put those struggles behind him against a Miami defense that is conceding 274.3 passing yards per game this season.

The battle between Hilinski and Smith is not the matchup most would have forecasted at the beginning of the season, but it is the reality now. Assuming NU’s secondary is up to the task, Hilinski and his receiving corps should be looking to exploit a RedHawks defense that allowed over 600 yards through the air against Kentucky and Cincinnati.

Familiar foes meet for first time in 13 years

Saturday’s meeting will be the 10th matchup and first meeting between Miami and NU in nearly 13 years. The series between the two schools dates back to 1955, with the last matchup occurring in October 2009.

The RedHawks hold a 6-3 series lead over the Cats, but Fitzgerald’s side has won the last two matchups. This included the emotional 2006 meeting between the pair, the only time NU has traveled to Oxford, Ohio.

The sudden passing of Coach Randy Walker thrust Fitzgerald into a head coaching position at his alma mater, tasked with leading a program in mourning. Walker, who led the Cats from 1999-2006, got his first head coaching gig at Miami in 1990 and led the RedHawks for nine seasons before leaving for Evanston after the 1998 campaign. NU went on to win the game 21-3. 

“Everything’s special about this game,” Fitzgerald said in a Monday press conference. “Obviously my time with Randy (Walker), that staff, there was a lot of his players and teammates that were with us here. The list goes on and on of great Miami players that I’ve gotten to know over the years and obviously the rich tradition that program has speaks for itself. There’s a lot of memories that came back when I woke up this morning.”

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