Football: Why is Northwestern football floundering? Five trends that explain the Wildcats’ abysmal start to 2022


Joanne Haner/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil talks with players as they come off the field. O’Neil’s defense is giving up 27.7 points per game, ranking 12th out of 14 Big Ten teams.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

In a matter of weeks, Northwestern went from becoming the first team in college football to beat a Power Five team to plummeting in the conference standings. 

The Wildcats’ season-opening 31-28 win against Nebraska in Dublin feels like a distant memory, obscured by a five-game losing streak that has virtually erased NU’s chances of bowl contention. The only consolation the Cats had after a 42-7 loss to Wisconsin was the upcoming bye week.

“We need a bye like we need a win,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We at least get one of the two.”

NU would need a massive turnaround to even reach last year’s 3-9 record. ’s Football Power Index projects NU will finish with a total of 1.5 wins, ranking 130 out of 131 eligible programs.

How did the Cats get to this point? Here are five trends that explain why NU has underperformed its expectations and the program’s standard.

1. Wildcats never establish the run

Stats to Know: 112.3 rushing yards per game (11th in Big Ten), Evan Hull: 105 carries (4th in Big Ten) and 4.1 yards per rush (22nd in Big Ten)

The Visualization: Rushing yards by week

The Breakdown: NU’s running back group looked to be the team’s strength entering the season. Junior Cam Porter, who missed the 2021 season due to injury, rejoined a backfield that already featured 1,000-yard rusher and junior captain Evan Hull. Hull recorded standout performances against Nebraska and Southern Illinois and had historic production as a receiver against Duke. But the running game failed the Cats at the time when running the ball is expected to be the offense’s bread and butter — the non-conference schedule. 

Instead of overpowering lesser opponents, NU has struggled to establish the run early in games and leaned heavily on junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski’s arm. The result: three shocking non-conference upsets and a winless record in the U.S. The production bottomed out in the Cats’ return to Big Ten play: 31 and 79 rushing yards in respective games against Penn State and Wisconsin. 

Fitz Said It: “We’ve got to be able to run the football. You need to be able to run the ball and have balance and we weren’t able to do that, especially early today.”

2. Quarterback play spirals in five-game losing streak

Stats to Know: Hilinski: 1,576 passing yards (4th in Big Ten), six interceptions (T-2nd worst), 46.1 ESPN QBR (11th in Big Ten)

The Visualization: Northwestern’s ESPN QBR and EPA by week

The Breakdown: By ESPN’s QBR (Quarterback Rating) and EPA (Expected Points Added) metrics, Hilinski’s performance against Nebraska in Ireland ranks as one of the best by any Big Ten quarterback this year. His performance has dropped precipitously in the weeks since, to the point that the EPA metric has been in the negatives for the past two games, considering the performances of both Hilinski and sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan. 

The Cats have leaned on their passing attack with their struggles establishing offensive balance, resulting in impressive yardage totals but declining efficiency. Hilinski kept his status as NU’s top quarterback through the first five games, but his benching and possible concussion against Wisconsin have thrown the quarterback situation into flux.

Fitz Said It: “Quarterbacks get evaluated on wins. That’s how I’ve always approached it … When you’re not winning, it gets exacerbated a little bit. We have to help them: with the playcalls, up front, catching the ball for them, getting open for them and timing. We’ve got to have balance and run the ball, and then they have to be able to do their jobs.”

3. Cats struggle to make big plays on either side of the ball

Stats to Know: -6 turnover differential, nine total sacks (tied-last in Big Ten), 15 red zone touchdowns allowed (tied-last in Big Ten) 

The Visualization: Offensive and defensive third-down percentages, relative to the Big Ten.


The Breakdown: The lasting memory of NU’s first half last year was the defense’s propensity for surrendering big gains on the opening plays. While the Cats have put together some solid defensive performances, they have had issues generating big plays on offense and preventing them on defense. Third- and fourth-down conversion percentages provide insights into how a team performs in high-leverage situations when it needs to either prolong a drive on offense or make a key stop on defense.

In both converting their own third downs and preventing third-down conversions from their opponent, the Cats rank near the bottom of the Big Ten, with their own conversion rate nearly 10 percentage points below their opponents’. Fourth down is where things get especially interesting. NU has the most fourth-down conversions in the conference — Hilinski’s quarterback sneaks have proven especially effective here — and rank fifth in conversions, but Fitzgerald’s aggression has damaged its chances when it doesn’t convert. Defensively, the Cats haven’t stopped any of their opponents’ six fourth-down attempts.

Fitz Said It: “All the plays we’ve given up we can defend, and all the plays we haven’t executed, there’s a reason to the ‘why.’ If it was the same ‘why,’ it would probably be resolved. It seems like at times we’ve got this ‘why’ fixed, and then this thing pops up.”

4. Special teams still unsettled in October

Stats to Know: 3-for-6 on field goal attempts (11th in Big Ten), 37.9 net yards per punt (13th in Big Ten), 15.5 yards per kick return (13th in Big Ten), 70 percent red zone conversion percentage (13th in Big Ten) 

The Visualization: Northwestern field goal attempts, 2021 vs 2022


The Breakdown: The quarterback situation isn’t the only unit in turmoil. NU has played two punters and two kickers so far, and in most metrics the Cats are among the Big Ten’s worst special teams units. Those struggles include converting field goals, flipping field position with punts and picking up big gains in the return game. If there’s any silver lining, NU has had a standout start in its return coverage with a conference-high 45.0 net yards per kickoff. 

Is the kicking situation worse than last year? Looking at the results, the supposed improvements at kicker have yet to materialize. Then-graduate kicker Charlie Kuhbander only made six of his 13 attempts in 2021 but converted from 47 yards against Indiana State. So far, the Cats’ longest field goal was a 35-yarder by graduate kicker Adam Stage, and last week’s 21-yard missed field goal by junior kicker Jack Olsen to end the first half was as disheartening as it gets.

Fitz Said It: “We’ve had so many empty trips now. You look, we’re a touchdown here, a touchdown there and we’re in games. That’s why, at the end of the half, I didn’t want to kick a field goal but I wanted to get something positive out of the first half … We don’t execute obviously in the last six seconds left with the field goal.”

5. Playing down to the competition

Stats to Know: 0-4 record at home, 65th in strength of schedule, 9th in remaining strength of schedule

The Visualization: First half opponents’ versus second half opponents’ FPI Index


The Breakdown: ESPN’s Football Power Index compares how many points a football program is above or below an average team, so Ohio State’s FPI projects it to beat an average team by 28.3 points, while NU’s FPI sits at -9.2 — the worst in the Big Ten by nearly a touchdown. For the purposes of this data visualization, we compared the FPI of the Cats’ opponents in the first and second halves of the season. The difference is jarring — though NU is 1-5 going into its bye week, the last six games project to be much more difficult. 

Ohio State will obviously be a difficult opponent, but all six of the remaining opponents are at least six points above an average team and over a two-touchdown margin better than NU. The Cats didn’t handle business against inferior competition in their first six games — including two programs who NU paid a reported total of $1.5 million to play at Ryan Field — and the second-half outlook makes the chances of a drastic turnaround seem slim.

Fitz Said It: “There’s nothing magical for me to say. It’s been the motto of our program for a long time — you have to trust yourself in the arena.”

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Twitter: @jhnriker

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