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Q&A with Inside NU on Northwestern Football

Find out more about Saturday’s opponent for Rutgers here.

NCAA Football: Indiana State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers will face Northwestern for just the second time as Big Ten foes on Saturday and it will be their first trip to Evanston as conference opponents. It’s essentially a must win for both teams as they are each looking for their first Big Ten win of the season.

In an effort to find out more about this week’s opponent, I was fortunate to connect with Ben Chasen, the editor-in-chief of Inside NU, SB Nation’s Northwestern site. The disappointing start, the defensive struggles, offensive highlights and more are covered here.

AB: Northwestern has had a disappointing start to the season at 2-3 and being uncompetitive at times. What were expectations entering the season and what have been the biggest issues so far?

BC: It was hard to set expectations for this Northwestern team going into 2021 for a variety of reasons, but it’s safe to say that the Wildcats’ start – one in which they’ve lost all three of their matchups against Power Five teams – has disappointed even the NU fans and writers who were most skeptical prior to kickoff on September 3. Sure, the ‘Cats lost boatloads of talent on both sides of the ball and their storied, Broyles Award-finalist defensive coordinator at the end of the 2020 campaign... and that was before Cam Porter, the running back that was supposed to highlight the offense, went down for the season during training camp. But even with those blows taken into consideration, they’ve still looked astonishingly bad.

The biggest issues have decidedly been on the defensive end, where new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s schemes have been ripped to shreds by just about every legitimate opponent they’ve been tested against. Missed tackles, blown assignments and wide open gaps in the field have all contributed to a weak and permeable front for opposing offenses to face. Offensively, the ‘Cats have turned the ball over far too often and have struggled to get both the pass and run games clicking at once. Then there’s special teams, where fifth-year kicker Charlie Kuhbander has missed three of his seven attempts. Bad news all around.

AB: Quarterback has been an interesting situation this season. Hunter Johnson started the season with a great game against Michigan State, only to struggle mightily against Duke and Andrew Marty stepped up. Now South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinksi has started the last two games with modest results. Where do things stand coming out of the bye week?

BC: It looks like Ryan Hilinski will be Northwestern’s signal caller going forward, at least for now. Heading into training camp, Hilinski was seen by most familiar with the program as the frontrunner to start, only for Hunter Johnson to beat him out for the job to the surprise of many. While Johnson looked pretty darn good in the season opener against Michigan State, he was entirely unflattering against FCS side Indiana State and turned the ball over four times in less than a half against Duke, a feat so impressively dismal that he was benched.

In the short time he did play against Duke, Andrew Marty – who replaced Johnson – balled out, leading the ‘Cats nearly all the way back from a 27-0 deficit. Unfortunately, he was injured on a play late in the game, and the expectation is that he will miss much of the remainder of the season (if not all of it). That has led NU back to Hilinski, who, after not really doing much to concern or excite fans against Ohio, looked decent at Nebraska while the rest of the team faltered. This game will be a big test for the South Carolina transfer, who has had two weeks to prep for the Scarlet Knights’ defense. If the Wildcats are going to improve as the season continues, Hilinski will have to provide a step up from the quarterback play the team has had thus far.

AB: Evan Hull is averaging 7.3 yards per carry and is on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing this season. However, he has been up and down game to game. What is the key for him to get going and how do you expect Northwestern to attack Rutgers on the ground?

BC: After the aforementioned Cam Porter suffered a lower-body injury in camp that ended his season before it started, a lot of concern went to the running back position, and, to this point, Evan Hull has filled in admirably. However, his best games have been against Ohio and Indiana State, neither of which come close to resembling average Big Ten talent. In my personal opinion, this has had more to do with NU’s offensive line than with Hull himself. When put up against Power Five defenders, the so-called Trench ‘Cats have really struggled to create holes for Hull and the Wildcats’ other backs, and, as such, rushing numbers have suffered. In order for Hull to reach 1,000 yards this season and for Northwestern to thrive running the ball, the o-line, anchored by former five-star recruit Peter Skoronski and captain Sam Gerak, will have to block more fundamentally and do a better job of keeping defenders from the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.

AB: Northwestern has fumbled 9 times, ultimately turning it over five times in five games. How much of a concern is this moving forward and what has been the biggest cause?

BC: It’s definitely a concern, and Pat Fitzgerald has mentioned it quite a bit in his press conferences. It’s hard to pinpoint why the ‘Cats have had such trouble hanging onto the ball, because the fumbles have come in a variety of different ways: through botched handoffs, strip sacks and open-field hits, just to name a few. Regardless, ball security has been emphasized to the NU media a lot, so it’s probably been discussed and addressed in practice. All Wildcat fans can hope in this regard is that the coaching works.

AB: Northwestern has struggled on the defensive end against power five competition. They are last in the Big Ten in yards allowed and second to last in scoring defense.What have been the issues and how confident are you that they can improve the rest of the way?

BC: As I said above, the transition from storied DC Mike Hankwitz to the new guy, Jim O’Neil, has been going about as poorly as it possibly could. Inexperience and lack of familiarity are certainly some reasons for the struggles, as more than half of the starters that comprised the nation-leading 2020 defensive unit – including NFL Draft first-rounder CB Greg Newsome II, later-round pick DL Earnest Brown IV, multi-year captain LB Paddy Fisher, Fisher’s right-hand man LB Blake Gallagher, Auburn transfer DL Eku Leota, and locker room leader S JR Pace – have since departed.

But fans have been especially wary of O’Neil, whose NFL-style schemes have been beaten routinely by competent competitors. His winter hiring prompted some head-scratching, as he had consistently failed as a coach at the professional level, and those doubts are seemingly being confirmed by the team’s play thus far. I’m not confident that the defense will improve the rest of the way, but if it’s going to, the team will have to either more effectively execute the gameplans that O’Neil lays in front of them or revert to the less aggressive formations they ran under Hankwitz.

AB: What are the keys to the game for Northwestern and is there anything that jumps out to you as a concern with this matchup against Rutgers?

BC: Defensive improvement is the main key to success for Northwestern against Rutgers, as, if they come out the way they did against Nebraska, the game will be over rather quickly. As for what concerns me about how NU lines up against the Scarlet Knights, Greg Schiano’s team ranks 17th in the nation in turnover margin per game. That could be a problem for the ‘Cats, who have struggled to hold onto the ball offensively and to take it away defensively. Additionally, RU has played really disciplined ball thus far with the 10th fewest penalties per game in the country, also a problematic development for the Wildcats, who have failed to create much momentum on their own thus far.

AB: What is your prediction for this game?

BC: I’d love to say that the ‘Cats – who will be coming off a bye week, hosting homecoming and welcoming players and coaches from their historic 1995 and 1996 teams back to Ryan Field – will bounce back and show themselves capable of scraping together a few Big Ten wins in what has revealed itself to be a down year for the program. But thus far, there’s been no evidence to suggest that they’re capable of doing so, and I’m a big believer in the idea that seeing is believing. Rutgers 31, Northwestern 21.

Thanks to Ben for providing such great insight on the current state of Northwestern football ahead of Saturday’s game. You can follow him on Twitter here and for complete coverage of Northwestern athletics, visit Inside NU. To read my answers to Ben’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.