Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Ryan Hilinski has had an up-and-down college football career, to say the least. He began his career at South Carolina in 2019, where he threw for 2,391 yards, 11 touchdowns, and five interceptions in 13 games for the Gamecocks. He transferred to NU in 2021 in an effort to get more playing time, but that was also easier said than done. Last year, he wound up rotating with three other signal-callers as injuries, and inconsistency plagued the quarterback position.
Hilinski played in 10 games last year but didn't finish many of them. His rate stats were underwhelming — 54 percent completion rate for 978 yards and 5.6 yards per attempt — and he threw more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3). He also took nine sacks and was held to under 10 completions in four games as the Wildcats struggled with putting together a consistent passing attack.
But sometimes it only takes one game to change everyone's perception, and that was the case last Saturday in the season opener against Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland. Not only did Northwestern pull out the satisfying 31-28 victory over Nebraska, but Hilinski looked and played more confidently and the entire offense followed his lead. For his efforts, Hilinksi was named Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week.
After the long, cross-Atlantic trip, Northwestern gets a much-deserved bye. If there was any doubt that Hilinski was the right choice to be the starter, here are five reasons why he should be the guy under center for next Saturday's home opener against Duke, and beyond.
1. The numbers
Football is all about production, and a quick look at the Nebraska box score shows why Hilinski and the Wildcats came out on top. His 314 passing yards were the most he's had in a Northwestern uniform and his highest total in three years. He had three 300-yard games when he was a freshman at South Carolina in 2019. His two touchdown passes nearly match his entire total from last season (three), and, most importantly, he didn't throw an interception while completing 27 of his 38 attempts (71.1 percent).
2. The intangibles
Besides Hilinski's stats, his poise against the Cornhuskers was evident too. Nebraska didn't register a single sack, despite ratcheting up the pressure in the second half. And while there were a few long pass plays (three of 30-plus yards), Hilinski was more than willing to take what the defense would give him rather than try and force the ball downfield. He also kept the Huskers' defense on its heels by spreading the ball around. Hilinski's 27 completions went to nine different receivers — and no passes were caught by the guys on the other team. After last season's turnover problems, it was important for him to get off to a good start, and that's what he did.
3. The rest of the offense clicked around him
Besides throwing for 300 yards, Northwestern also piled up 200 on the ground. Evan Hull led the way with 119 and a touchdown on a game-high 21 carries while Cam Porter wasn't too far behind (19 att., 94 yds., TD). There weren't many long runs (two of 20-plus yards), but the Wildcats still were able to make consistent gains on the ground, something that played a huge role in their second-half comeback. The balanced attack produced 528 total yards and allowed Northwestern the ability to control the clock, holding onto the ball for more than 34 minutes.
4. The defense stayed fresh and came on strong late
The Wildcats' clock-eating ways on offense meant the defense was on the field for less than half of the game. While Nebraska did score 28 points and generate 465 total yards, Northwestern didn't surrender a single point after 9:09 was left in the third quarter while the offense scored two touchdowns to erase an 11-point deficit. The Wildcats also forced three turnovers (two INTs) and recorded two sacks. As the old saying goes, offense gets the glory but defense wins the game, even if it may not always look that way on the stat sheet.
5. Wildcats now have momentum
This week's bye not only provided a chance to rest and revel a little longer in last Saturday's victory, but it also removed the Nebraska game from the schedule, which looks more favorable the rest of the way. Next up is a home date with Duke, followed by a visit from Southern Illinois, an FCS program, and then MAC member Miami (Ohio) to close out the season. The Blue Devils are breaking in a new head coach (among other changes) after going 3-9 last season. Northwestern is 17-2 all-time against FCS teams and, while the RedHawks went 7-6 in 2021, Miami has to replace some key players on both sides of the ball.
It won't be easy, but the path to a 4-0 start is now clearly laid out. Such a run would not only leave them just two more victories from bowl eligibility, but it also would have the Wildcats feeling really good about themselves before opening Big Ten play on the road against Penn State on Oct. 1.
And this wouldn't have been a possibility if not for Hilinski playing his best game as Northwestern's field general.
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.