The Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 0-1 in Big Ten) visit Lincoln this Saturday for a 6:30 p.m. game with Nebraska (2-3, 0-2), which is looking for a bounce-back and potential season-saving win following a devastating 23-20 overtime loss on the road at Michigan State last week.
The Nebraska-Northwestern series has become known as the “it’ll always be close” game between the two schools, and for good reason. The Huskers lead the overall series 8-6, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats have won four of the last six. Five of those games have been decided by one score.
What should fans be aware of when Northwestern comes to town? Let’s break down the Wildcats.
The quarterback, Ryan Hilinski
Northwestern will be starting Ryan Hilinski, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound transfer from South Carolina who started the season third string behind former five-star recruit and Clemson transfer, Hunter Johnson, and career backup Andrew Marty.
Johnson was benched after throwing three interceptions in the first half of Northwestern’s game at Duke, a contest which the Wildcats trailed 30-7 at halftime and lost 30-23. He was replaced by Marty, who did some nice things and was responsible for three touchdowns in a come-from-behind effort, but didn’t finish the game due to an injury. That’s when Hilinski came in and went 2-of-7 for 34 yards.
Hilinski, who started 11 games as a freshman at South Carolina and beat Georgia in 2019, got the start against Ohio last week and was 12-of-20 for just 88 yards. The Wildcats didn’t need him to pass a ton, however, as the run game was doing just fine.
Northwestern rushed for 373 yards and four touchdowns against the Bobcats. Running back Evan Hull—who we’ll touch on later—was the star of the game, rushing for 216 yards and two scores. Hull even rattled off a 90-yard touchdown run, seen in the video below:
Hilinski wasn’t asked to do much in his first start against Ohio, but considering how the Nebraska defense has been playing this season, that will have to change on Saturday. The Huskers are coming off a great performance against Michigan State’s offense. Nebraska held the Spartans to 71 rushing yards and Kenneth Walker III to 61 yards, well below his season average.
Hilinski is capable of picking apart a defense. He showed that at times against Ohio. On the play below, watch how he hangs in the pocket and goes through his progressions, first looking to his left and working back right. He finds Stephon Robinson Jr. for the first down on third-and-5. Robinson will get a lot of action on Saturday—the 5-10, 180-pound Kansas transfer is second on the team in catches with 15 for 193 yards and one touchdown.
Hull leads three-headed rushing attack
While Hilinski has experience playing in hostile environments, Northwestern would much rather run it than throw it against Nebraska. The Wildcats are averaging 5.13 yards per carry, which is fourth in the Big Ten and 30th in the nation. The 5-10, 210-pound Hull is the leader of the three-headed attack that includes 6-1, 215-pound true freshman Anthony Tyus III and 5-11, 202-pound Bowling Green transfer Andrew Claire.
Hull has rushed for 495 yards and four touchdowns and has a 7.6 yards-per-carry average. While he’s a north-south bruiser, he has a little make-you-miss in him, too, as he demonstrated last week against Ohio:
Tyus is an impressive runner for a true freshman. The three-star recruit from Michigan has 171 rushing yards and one score. He’s more of a power back for the Wildcats and will look to run through defenders rather than around them. Here’s Tyus taking a handoff for a counter run out of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end). He follows the left guard and H-back for a first down on first-and-10 against Indiana State:
Clair spent four years at Bowling Green and can do a little bit of everything in the backfield. He rushed for 1,937 yards and 13 touchdowns while catching 44 passes for 330 yards and four scores from 2017-2020 for the Falcons. This season at Northwestern, Clair has 154 yards and is averaging 7.4 per carry.
Here’s an example of Clair’s running style against Ohio. Northwestern comes out in 11 personnel and wants to run an inside split-zone run, but Clair takes it outside for the first down. This type of run may work against the winless Bobcats, but most likely not against a battle-tested Husker defense:
Stay away from Chris Bergin
Northwestern’s best player on defense is Chris Bergin, the 5-11, 223-pound strongside linebacker. Bergin plays fast and violent, and he’ll be around the ball all night long on Saturday. He leads the Wildcats with 45 tackles, which is one less than Big Ten-leader Luke Reimer, who’s played one more game than Bergin has.
Nebraska has lost a Big Ten-high five fumbles this season and is minus-1 in turnover margin. With the margin for error so small, the Huskers can’t afford to make many mistakes around Bergin, who flies around hunting for the ball, as Ohio quarterback Kurtis Rourke found out the hard way last week:
Who should the Huskers attack?
Northwestern’s defense is allowing just 20 points per game, which is top-50 in the nation. The Wildcats’ pass defense is pretty stout, it’s allowing just 6.1 yards per pass, so the Huskers’ offense shouldn’t want to test the defensive backs, especially safety Brandon Joseph, a freshman All-American last year who had six interceptions.
Instead, maybe Nebraska’s offense should key weakside linebacker Peter McIntyre, who has seemed to be picked on by opposing offenses this season. In Northwestern’s loss at Duke, the Blue Devils continuously put McIntyre into situations where he had to sift through traffic and communicate with teammates—that led to positive plays for Duke.
On the example below, Duke running back Mataeo Durant catches a swing pass to the boundary, or short side of the field. McIntyre is responsible for Durant, but gets picked off by a receiver. The result is a Blue Devil touchdown:
On the next example below, McIntyre doesn’t communicate or pass off on any of the two receivers to the boundary, leaving Durant wide open on the wheel route up the sideline:
Pass coverage may not be McIntyre’s strong suit. In the example below, he takes a couple steps forward when there wasn’t a play-action fake and therefore doesn’t get enough depth in his coverage. Duke connects on the pass right behind him for a first down: