Northwestern defeats Rutgers on Homecoming Weekend

By Eli Berk

Adetomiwa Adebawore’s four tackles for loss led the Wildcats to a key Big Ten victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

Northwestern (3-3, 1-2 B1G) celebrated its homecoming game with an 11 a.m. kickoff against Rutgers (3-4, 0-4 B1G) and came home in style. The Wildcats had two weeks to prepare for this game, coming off a bye week after a brutal 56-7 loss at Nebraska, and they made the most of their extra time.

The Wildcats’ defensive success was the story of the game, as many wondered how they would recover after letting up 56 points to Nebraska. They proved all doubters wrong this week, holding Rutgers to just seven points. Four sacks and 11 tackles for loss provided a clear path to victory for the ‘Cats.

The ‘Cats started the game off hot, as Ryan Hilinski aired it out to grad transfer wide-out Stephon Robinson for a gain of 46 on the second play of the game. However, the team couldn’t capitalize off the massive gain, stalling out on the following three plays, forcing Charlie Kuhbander to attempt a 44-yard field goal. With plenty of time to get the ball off, the kick sailed wide left, and Northwestern’s defense trotted out onto the field.

Rutgers played a conservative opening drive, converting on one of two third downs. A big sack on third down from Adetomiwa Adebawore brought out the punt team to give the ‘Cats the ball back deep in their own territory.

After both teams traded punts, Northwestern’s offense came onto the field pinned in their own territory. Hilinski put on a masterpiece of a drive, hitting Robinson again for a gain of 22 yards to move the chains on third down. Shortly after, Hilinski found Malik Washington for a 64-yard catch and run to open the scoring. Washington caught the ball at midfield and barreled over defenders on his trek to the end zone. This strike was the longest touchdown pass for the ‘Cats since the 2018 season.

The game slowed down immensely, with both teams trading more punts. Rutgers muffed a Derek Adams punt, where Cam Mitchell was able to pounce on it. The first play in the new set resulted in an 11-yard loss off a failed flea-flicker attempt, and the ‘Cats were unable to move any further, failing a fourth-down conversion attempt.

Hilinski closed out the quarter completing seven of his 14 passes for 162 yards and a score, while the defense held Rutgers to just 40 yards of total offense. 

In its first drive of the second quarter, Northwestern showed promise with a 27-yard run from Andrew Clair, but both teams continued to punt the ball back and forth. 

Rutgers moved the ball exceptionally well, starting its next drive from its own three-yard line, picking up a quick first down followed by a 46-yard completion from Noah Vedral to senior receiver Bo Melton. On third and 12, the Knights converted off a jump pass to freshman running back Kyle Monangai for 24 yards. Shortly after, a pump fake from Vedral completely spun out the Northwestern defense, leaving Melton wide open in the back of the end zone for a toe-tap grab. The ‘Cats quickly rebounded with consecutive tackles for loss, including the first-career sack for Bryce Gallagher.

The ‘Cats responded to the score with a 12-play, 82-yard touchdown drive, taking 5:29 off the clock. Going two-for-two on third downs on the drive, Hilinski’s throws were on-point. He found Robinson for 19 and JJ Jefferson for 32 before targeting Marshall Lang for the two-yard snatch to put the ‘Cats back up by seven.

Two more punts brought the half’s final drive, where the homecoming crowd could be heard in full. A “missed” pass interference call in the middle of the field caused a reaction so loud, it could’ve been heard on the shores of Lake Michigan. The score remained where it was, and both teams went into the locker rooms.

Hilinski ended the first half 15 of 26 with 231 yards, and two touchdown passes. The Northwestern defense also racked up three sacks, holding Rutgers back even further.

Continuing the homecoming festivities, Northwestern celebrated the 1995 and 1996 Big Ten champion teams on the field, along with numerous generations of Northwestern alumni all around the stands.

Rutgers started the second half on offense but were turned away quickly, thanks to another sack from the Northwestern defense, this time by Jeremy Meiser. The ‘Cats worked a solid drive, getting out to midfield off a 13-yard run from Evan Hull and a hard count drawing Rutgers offside on fourth-and-one. The drive halted from there, however, as the punt team came out for the ‘Cats. Derek Adams fielded the snap and sprinted straight for the line of scrimmage, trying to catch the Knights off guard, but was stuffed at the line, slow to get off the field in the process.

A penalty-ridden following drive brought Rutgers to the Wildcats’ red zone. Still, the 33-yard field goal attempt from junior kicker Valentino Ambrosio narrowly missed the mark, holding the Northwestern lead to seven.

Both teams traded three-and-outs as the third quarter inched to a close. Stephon Robinson’s contributions put him at 115 receiving yards through just 45 minutes of play, the first 100-yard receiver since Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman in 2020.

Following more punts, the ‘Cats put together an impressive drive, capitalizing on Rutgers penalties. A screen pass to Evan Hull and a jet sweep to Robinson put Northwestern in the red zone, where another flag was thrown, this time for pass interference. Just three plays later, Andrew Clair punched it up the middle from three yards out to extend the Northwestern lead to 14.

Rutgers couldn’t muster up much offense following the dagger, not even escaping its own red zone. After punting the ball away, Northwestern ran the ball down under five minutes to spell the end. Samdup Miller recorded a fourth-down sack to turn the ball over on downs and give the ‘Cats the ball at the Rutgers 15, where they were able to run down the clock to a victory.

Ryan Hilinski ended the game 18-for-33 with 267 yards and a pair of touchdown passes, where Stephon Robinson recorded five receptions for 115 yards.

The ‘Cats travel to Ann Arbor next week, where they will face off against No. 8 Michigan while Rutgers heads into a bye week before traveling south to meet Illinois in Champaign.