Football: After scoring just 14 points against Miami (Ohio), Northwestern’s lack of offense creates problem with Big Ten opponents ahead


Seeger Gray/Daily Northwestern

Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski hands the ball off to junior running back Evan Hull. The duo wasn’t as dynamic as it has been in previous contests, only connecting twice for 10 yards. Hull had 62 yards on the ground — his lowest rushing yards in one game this season.

Let’s face it — Northwestern’s secondary looked terrible last week against Southern Illinois. But after getting back two starters versus Miami (Ohio) (2-2, 1-0 MAC) in junior defensive back Cameron Mitchell and junior safety Coco Azema, the sky room tightened up its coverage, boosting coach Jim O’Neil’s entire defense. The group only gave up 57 yards through the air.

This time around, though, it was the offense’s lack of production that kept the Cats (1-3, 1-0 Big Ten) from securing its second win of the season and factored into a  17-14 defeat. Coach Pat Fitzgerald expressed that the offensive struggles derived from themselves.

“We continue to beat ourselves,” Fitzgerald said. “It looked like we had a couple drops, it looked like we turned the ball over, looked like we missed some targets, we had some one on one opportunities and it didn’t look like we made anybody miss.” 

Fitzgerald additionally emphasized how the offense would begin to find their groove, crossing the 50 and into RedHawk territory, yet would be stifled by a turnover. 

This was prominent nearing the end of both the first and fourth quarters. 

With the Cats jumped out to a 7-0 lead halfway through the first quarter with the help of a short field, and junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski completing 10 of his first 11 passes, the offense looked good. However, the optimistic opening and momentum quickly vanished for NU, as senior wideout Malik Washington fumbled close to the red zone on the following possession.

The Cats suffered the same fate in the last 30 seconds of the contest. Down 17-14, Hilinski found Washington across the field for a 21-yard reception, but he again fumbled, crushing NU’s remaining comeback hopes.

“We lost tempo a little bit,” Hilinski said. “That just kind of caused static, and some throws of course I want back, and we put ourselves in bad situations on first or second down with penalties or a non efficient first down which leads to not a great drive really.”

Yet, losing the slugfest under the lights at home wasn’t the worst part — it’s the concern this brings as Big Ten play begins next week, especially versus a Penn State team that averages 40.7 points per game. This urges the question, how will they keep up with high-flying Big Ten offenses?

Of course, the RedHawks’ defense is no pushover — they have given up the least amount of yards on the ground in the MAC (75.7) and second in points per game (29.7). But as a Group of Five conference, the MAC is secondary to the Big Ten in offensive production, defensive physicality and, in general, a step down.

Not to mention, it doesn’t help that the Cats first conference is at Penn State — one of the toughest environments in college football to play.

“Arguably one of the best fan bases in the sport,” Fitzgerald said. “One of the best arenas, it’s going to be a huge challenge and they’re a really good football team.”

Including the Nittany Lions, NU has multiple electric offenses to prepare for, facing the second through seventh ranked teams in the Big Ten for points per game. The Cats currently rank second-to-last.

Of course, these numbers are more directed to the NU defense, but if it does become a shootout between both teams — which has happened in conference play before — the Cats need to prove that they have the firepower and ability to compete with another team. Although Hilinski threw for 232 yards, with one run over 10 yards and zero passing touchdowns, that won’t cut it in the following weeks.

Even with the three straight disappointing losses, to end the press conference after the loss, Hilinski expressed that with Big Ten play approaching, the much-needed changes start with him.

“The positive that we can take away from it is we’re 1-0 in Big Ten play,” Hilinski said. “It comes down to explosives and taking care of the ball and just doing what we got to do to win football games because that’s not what coach Fitz deserves, it’s not what the defense deserves.

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