It’s been a bit of a weird season for Northwestern football (2-2, 0-1 B1G). After splitting their first two games – including a 38-21 drubbing at the hands of No. 17 Michigan State (4-0, 2-0 B1G) – and a rough road loss to Duke that saw their starting quarterback completely lose his confidence, it almost looked as though the ’Cats had a rough season in front of them, and plenty of questions left to answer before entering conference play.
On Saturday, however, almost all of those questions were on the backburner. The ’Cats enjoyed an easy 35-6 home win over the Ohio Bobcats (0-4, 0-0 MAC), completely dominating their opponents on every side of the ball. Northwestern junior running back Evan Hull was the star of the show, rushing for 216 yards and two touchdowns, en route to being named one of the Big Ten’s Offensive Players of the Week.
“Just a really, all-around great day, and a great week for our football program and a great response by our team today,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said postgame. “I thought we started the way we wanted to… outside of a couple plays, we really took care of the football very well… and the ability to run the football was outstanding. Our offensive line played really physically. There’s tons of things to clean up before we get back into Big Ten play, but nonetheless, a great team win, and I'm really proud of the way that guys responded."
After a week of anxious hopes around who would start the day at quarterback, it was sophomore Ryan Hilinski taking the snaps for the Wildcats – the first start of his Northwestern career – albeit in a bit of a lighter role, throwing just 12-for-20 and for only 88 yards. The Northwestern defense was also stalwart in their performance, holding Ohio to 3-for-13 on third down conversions, and causing three turnovers in the process, including their first two interceptions of the year.
“It feels great,” Northwestern sophomore safety Brandon Joseph said postgame. “The standard that we set for ourselves is to create turnovers, so for us to not have an interception in those first three games, that wasn't up to our standards. We're starting to get back into it… what the sky team really is with these first two interceptions of the year.”
Ohio was led in their effort by sophomore quarterback Kurtis Rourke, who went 20-for-29 with 166 yards and an interception, and fifth-year quarterback Armani Rogers, who led the Bobcats in rushing with 68 yards– although the bulk of that came on a 55-yard touchdown run at the very end of the regulation.
While it ended up being a near-perfect day, it was almost another rocky start for the ’Cats, as they began the game chasing Ohio. The Bobcats took the opening kickoff, and put together an eight-minute, 61-yard drive to put themselves into scoring position, but missed a 31-yard field goal to keep the score tied. Despite the break, the ’Cats couldn’t seem to jump out of the gate, and went three-and-out to start their offensive possessions, causing a bit of worry in the purple faithful everywhere.
The anxiety didn’t last long, however. After punting away the ball, the ’Cats defense forced a big fumble from Rourke, picking up the ball and great field position in the process. It didn’t take long for the team to capitalize, as Hull broke out and scored a 17-yard touchdown, putting Northwestern up 7-0.
The ’Cats rode the momentum for the next few plays, causing a quick three-and-out from Ohio and taking back possession on their own ten-yard line. This time, however, Hull didn’t want to wait, and broke through the middle to escape for a 90-yard touchdown; the third-longest run in Northwestern football history.
“I wasn't able to look at myself on the big screen, but I was definitely looking back to see who was coming behind me,” Hull said postgame. I don't think I've ever – in my career – have had a 90 yard touchdown… just gaining confidence, and trusting my training… running through contact was a huge thing that Coach… put me through, and he wanted me to focus on getting my legs stronger so that I can through contact, and I can keep running.”
Following the touchdown, there didn’t seem to be much going on for either team, as the two squads traded punts and miscues into the second quarter. The ’Cats did set up a few chances for graduate kicker Charlie Kuhbander, who continued to experience a bit of trouble – missing a 24-yard chip shot – but calmly nailed a kick from the same spot a few drives later. With the team doing enough on offense and completely dominating on defense, Northwestern took a 17-0 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The third quarter continued to show more of the same gridlock, with the Wildcat defense completely shutting down any momentum from Ohio, and the Northwestern offense seemed to click at spots, as Evan Hull continued to push pace from the backfield, but were unable to show anything for it in the box score, heading to the third quarter with the same 17-0 score.
With time running out for Ohio, the Bobcats began to be aggressive with their offense, to no avail from the Northwestern defense. The ’Cats forced three consecutive turnovers – an interception by sophomore safety Brandon Joseph, turnover on downs, and interception by senior defensive back Bryce Jackson – and converted on two of the ensuing possessions, with touchdowns by first-year running back Anthony Tyus and sophomore running back Jake Arthurs putting the game away for good.
While the game likely did not rest the hearts of many, it did answer a few lingering questions for Northwestern fans as they head back into Big Ten play at Nebraska (2-3, 0-2 B1G) this Saturday. Ryan Hilinski will once again start for the ’Cats, and the defense is able to turn up the heat when it becomes necessary… something Fitzgerald hopes will continue to develop as time goes on.
“I thought we communicated better,” Fitzgerald said postgame. “I thought we executed what the calls were at a higher level today… I thought we tackled better… I was really pleased with the performance. Like the old saying [goes,] when it rains, it pours. When you turn it over, it can turnover to bunches, and when you create turnovers, it can be created in bunches, so it's great to get back to our winning formula today.”
It’s been a bit of a weird season for Northwestern football, but so was 2018 and 2020. Let’s hope that weirdness pays off soon.