Northwestern Football Q&A with Inside NU

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Rutgers will face Northwestern for just the second time as enemies of the Big Ten 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 each seek their first Big Ten win of the season.

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

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

BEFORE CHRIST: It was difficult to set expectations for this Northwestern team before 2021 for a variety of reasons, but it’s safe to say that the Wildcats’ debut – the one in which they lost all three of their clashes against the Power Five teams – disappointed even. the NU fans and writers who were the most skeptical before the kickoff on September 3. Of course, the ‘Cats lost tons of talent on both sides of the ball and their historic defensive coordinator, Broyles Award finalist, by the end of the 2020 campaign. And that was before Cam Porter, the running back. was supposed to showcase the offense, not losing the season during training camp. But even with those shots taken into consideration, they still look surprisingly bad.

The biggest problems have definitely been on the defensive end, where new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s plans have been torn to pieces by just about every legitimate opponent they’ve been tested against. Missed tackles, failed assignments and large gaps on the pitch all helped create a weak and permeable front for opposing attacks. Offensively, the ‘Cats have returned the ball far too often and have struggled to get the pass and execute clicks at the same time. Then there’s the special teams, where fifth-year kicker Charlie Kuhbander missed three of his seven attempts. Bad news everywhere.

AB: The quarterback has been an interesting situation this season. Hunter Johnson started the season with a great game against Michigan State, only to fight mightily against Duke and Andrew Marty stepped up. Now South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinksi has started the last two games with modest results. Where are things at the end of the week off?

BEFORE CHRIST: It looks like Ryan Hilinski will be Northwestern’s caller going forward, at least for now. As training camp approached, Hilinski was considered by most regulars to the program as the starting favorite, only Hunter Johnson beat him for the job to the surprise of many. While Johnson looked damn good in the season opener against Michigan State, he was quite unflattering against the FCS Indiana State team and returned the ball four times in less than half against Duke, such an impressive feat that he was benched.

In the short time he played against Duke, Andrew Marty – who replaced Johnson – collapsed, leading the ‘Cats almost all the way back from a 27-0 deficit. Unfortunately, he was injured on a game late in the game, and is expected to miss much of the rest of the season (if not all). That brought NU back to Hilinski, who, after not really doing much to worry or excite fans against Ohio, looked decent in Nebraska while the rest of the squad faltered. This game will be a big test for the transfer to South Carolina, which has had two weeks to prepare for the Scarlet Knights defense. If the Wildcats are to improve as the season continues, Hilinski will need to provide an improvement over the quarterback the team has experienced so far.

AB: Evan Hull is averaging 7.3 yards per carry and is on track to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards this season. However, he has seen ups and downs from match to match. What’s the key to getting him to launch and how do you think Northwestern is attacking Rutgers on the ground?

BEFORE CHRIST: After the aforementioned Cam Porter suffered a lower body injury in the camp that ended his season before it started, a lot of concern went to running back and, at this point, Evan Hull admirably fulfilled its role. However, his best games have been against Ohio and Indiana State, neither of which look like average Big Ten talent. In my opinion, it has more to do with NU’s offensive line than with Hull himself. When faced with defenders from the Power Five, the so-called Trench ‘Cats have really struggled to create holes for other Hull and Wildcats full-backs, and as such rushed numbers have suffered. For Hull to hit 1,000 yards this season and for Northwestern to manage to run the ball, the o-line, anchored by former five-star rookie Peter Skoronski and captain Sam Gerak, will need to block more fundamentally and do a better job of guarding. defenders of the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.

AB: Northwestern fumbled 9 times, ultimately turning him over five times in five games. How worrying is this and what was the main cause?

BEFORE CHRIST: It is certainly a concern, and Pat Fitzgerald has mentioned it many times in his press conferences. It’s hard to pinpoint why the ‘Cats struggled so hard to hold onto the ball, as fumbles manifested themselves in a number of ways: through failed transfers, strip bags and hits, for n’ to name a few. Regardless, ball safety has received a lot of emphasis in the NU media, so it has likely been discussed and addressed in practice. All Wildcat fans can hope in this regard that the coaching works.

AB: Northwestern struggled defensively against the five-power competition. They are the last of the Big Ten for the allowed yards and the penultimate in defense. What were the issues and how confident are you that they can improve the rest of the way?

BEFORE CHRIST: As I said above, the transition from legendary DC Mike Hankwitz to new guy Jim O’Neil went as badly as it gets. Inexperience and unfamiliarity are certainly some of the reasons for the difficulty, as more than half of the starters that made up the leading 2020 defensive unit – including the first round of the NFL Draft CB Greg Newsome II, later round pick DL Earnest Brown IV, multi-year captain LB Paddy Fisher, Fisher LB right-hand man Blake Gallagher, Auburn transfer DL Eku Leota and S locker room leader JR Pace – have been gone ever since.

But fans were especially wary of O’Neil, whose NFL-style schemes have been regularly beaten by competent competitors. His winter hiring caused some headaches, as he had consistently failed as a coach at a professional level, and those doubts are apparently confirmed by the team’s play so far. I’m not sure the defense improves the rest of the way, but if it does, the team will either need to execute the game plans that O’Neil has in front of them more effectively or go back to the formations. less aggressive than they ran under Hankwitz.

AB: What are the keys to the game for Northwestern and is there something that concerns you in this game against Rutgers?

BEFORE CHRIST: Defensive improvement is the main key to Northwestern’s success against Rutgers, because if they fare the way they did against Nebraska, the game will end pretty quickly. As for what concerns me about how NU lines up against the Scarlet Knights, Greg Schiano’s side rank 17th in the country in terms of rotation margin per game. This could be a problem for the ‘Cats, who struggled to hold the ball offensively and regain it defensively. Moreover, RU has played a very disciplined ball so far with the 10th lowest penalties per game in the country, also a problematic development for the Wildcats, who have failed to create much momentum on their own. until now.

AB: What is your prediction for this game?

BEFORE CHRIST: I would like to say that the ‘Cats – who will come out of a week off, host homecoming and welcome players and coaches from their historic 1995 and 1996 squads to Ryan Field – will bounce back and prove themselves capable of putting together a a few Big Ten are winning in what has proven to be a sluggish year for the program. But so far there has been no evidence to suggest that they are able to do this, and I am a firm believer in seeing is believing. Rutgers 31, Northwest 21.

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



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