For Northwestern fans who didn’t think the score could be any more crushing than last week’s 31-23 loss to Duke that ended with a goal-line fumble, the Wildcats’ subsequent performance tested that notion.
Entering as a three-touchdown favorite, NU (1-2, 1-0 Big Ten) cruised through a loss-prone afternoon against previously winless Southern Illinois (1-2, 0-0 MVC) in a disastrous 31-24 loss . A Saluki defense that averaged 49 points per game against Incarnate Word and Southeast Missouri in its first two contests forced the Cats into two interceptions and two fumbles.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday:
Food to take home
- Wildcats lose turnover battle to winless Southern Illinois
NU gave away the game on Saturday. Southern Illinois intercepted junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski twice in the second quarter, nearly pulled away on a pick-six in the third quarter that was nullified by a holding penalty and forced junior running back Evan Hull to fumble it in the fourth quarter. On the next drive, the Salukis effectively ended the game with Hilinski’s strip, their fourth turnover of the game. Southern Illinois turned those four fumbles into 14 points.
The Cats also committed more penalties than their FCS visitors and were limited to just 213 passing yards. The Salukis offense did nothing out of the ordinary — for most of the game, Southern Illinois’ best offense was simply NU’s mistakes.
- Hilinski regressed in third start of the season
Throwing for more than 300 passing yards in each start was probably untenable for junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski, but his first start was a shocking drop from the prowess he had shown through the first two games of the season. The Salukis intercepted Hilinski twice in the first half and limited him to a 40 percent completion rate. The Cats’ screen game, a staple of last week’s comeback against Duke, was almost nonexistent and led to a deflection that turned into an interception in the second quarter. In the second half, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian dialed in deep passes to spark the offense, but Hilinski turned over several receivers and couldn’t find a rhythm on offense.
NU probably planned to grind their way to their first win, but with the score hanging in the balance, the Cats needed more from their leader. A Southern Illinois defense that surrendered 64 points to Incarnate Word in the season opener held Hilinski’s group to 14 points through the first three quarters. The junior finished the afternoon completing 27 of 43 passes for 213 yards, a fourth-quarter touchdown and three total passes.
- Wildcat secondary started slowly
Between injuries and inconsistent play, the secondary has to be the most concerning aspect of the Cats’ season so far. A unit that missed senior defensive back AJ Hampton Jr. and junior defensive back Coco Azema last week entered Saturday with sophomore defensive back Terran Johnson starting in place of Week 0 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Cam Mitchell.
The Salukis were never able to take the lead, but the defense had breakdowns and missed tackles unbecoming of a Power Five team playing an FCS opponent. Southern Illinois’ quarterbacks combined to complete 15 of their first 17 passes, including a wide-open 57-yard touchdown from quarterback Nick Baker to tight end Tyce Daniel. After the first Saluki interception, Baker immediately took advantage with an 18-yard field goal to tie the score.
- Hilinski, Gallagher show off their wheels
Hilinski isn’t known as a dual-threat quarterback, but after slimming down in the spring and summer, he flashed his speed on the Cats’ first down.
With the game tied and NU looking to gain momentum on its second drive, Hilinski kept a read option and took off down the right side. He found the open field, tearing down the sideline for a 22-yard gain before a Saluki defender finally pushed him out of bounds. Hilinski finished with a 4th-and-1 sneak at the goal line that gave the Cats their first touchdown of the game.
Another NU player making an unexpected Wildcat breakthrough — junior linebacker and captain Bryce Gallagher. On the final play of the first half, Gallagher recovered a blocked field goal and sprinted behind an entourage of blockers as the final seconds of the half ticked off the clock. The Salukis finally brought down Gallagher after a thrilling 58-yard punt return to end the first half.
5. The schedule is about to get a lot tougher
Saturday’s performance doesn’t bode well for an NU team that has a powerful Miami (Ohio) team. Then it’s back to Big Ten competition with road games against Penn State and Maryland and a challenging home game against Wisconsin to open October. The Cats fell short against Southern Illinois, and while they will have time to correct course, there are no easy wins ahead.
After a forgettable season opener in Dublin, the Cats’ performance in the States was a startling reality check.
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