Season Recap: Football
By Bradley Locker
Overall Record: 3-9
Conference Record: 1-8
Passing Leader: Ryan Hillinski (978 yards)
Rushing Leader: Evan Hull (1,009 yards)
Receiving Leader: Stephon Robinson Jr. (625 yards)
After a 2020 campaign in which Northwestern won the Big Ten West for the second time in three years, expectations were high for the Wildcats as they entered 2021. However, the team failed to live up to the hype, posting a 3-9 campaign with just one conference victory.
There was a palpable buzz surrounding Ryan Field as fans made their return to 1501 Central St. for the first time since 2019, especially with a Friday night matchup against Michigan State. But by the first play of scrimmage, it was clear that some of the shine from their breathtaking prior campaign had worn off: running back Kenneth Walker III dashed 75 yards to the house, giving MSU a 7-0 lead right out of the gate.
The Wildcats dropped their opener 38-21, though the passing attack — with former top recruit Hunter Johnson at the helm — looked promising, with Johnson going 30-of-43 with 283 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
A week later, Northwestern got back on track, dismantling Indiana State 24-6.The ‘Cats held the Sycamores to under 170 yards of total offense, while running back Evan Hull amassed 138 yards and two touchdowns en route to victory.
Northwestern’s 2021 season took a turn for the worst on September 21 against Duke in Durham. The Blue Devils gained a lopsided 27-0 lead before the two-minute warning of the first half. Though the Wildcats attempted a rally, injury to quarterback Andrew Marty, who came in after Johnson tossed three picks, stifled NU’s momentum, and the team dropped to 1-2.
The ‘Cats’ bout with Ohio in late September was many Northwestern students’ first chance to attend a game at Ryan Field, and the team did not disappoint. The purple and white trounced Ohio 35-6 in another ground-and-pound affair, netting 373 rushing yards. Just like that, the ‘Cats sat at 2-2.
A litmus test in Lincoln, Nebraska against the Cornhuskers quickly extinguished the minimal flame the Wildcats had lit. Northwestern lost 56-7 in one of the worst defeats in program history, surrendering over 650 yards of offense to Scott Frost’s team.
Northwestern faithful hoped that a bonafide Homecoming, plus a bye week, could help to boost the team’s morale, and the two factors paid off. NU defeated the Scarlet Knights 21-7 in arguably the team’s most impressive all-around game of the season. Starter Ryan Hilinski threw for 267 yards and two scores, while four ‘Cats totaled sacks of RU gunslingers. The rollercoaster took yet another precipitous turn, and Northwestern was once again at .500.
On Oct. 23, Fitzgerald’s squad ventured to Ann Arbor, Mich. to battle the vaunted Michigan Wolverines in The Big House. NU rallied from a 10-0 deficit courtesy of a 75-yard touchdown gallop from Hull to momentarily quiet the maize-and-blue fans. However, Michigan looked true to form from that point onward, winning handily 33-7.
Returning to Ryan Field provided all tricks, no treats, a day before Halloween. Facing Minnesota in a do-or-die game, the Gophers ran wild for 308 yards and four TDs, drubbing Northwestern 41-14. The ‘Cats sat at 3-5.
The final four games of the season demonstrated the overall quality of Northwestern’s 2021 team: one which looked competitive at times, yet which was dismantled with some regularity.
NU fell 17-12 to ranked Iowa on Senior Night before heading to Camp Randall Stadium, where the Badgers won by a dominating 35-7. On Nov. 20, the Wildcats called Chicago’s own Wrigley Field home for a commemorative game against Purdue. But the affair did not match its festive atmosphere. Purdue beat NU 32-14 behind 423 yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Aidan O’Connell alongside 213 yards and three scores from receiver Milton Wright.
Although Northwestern’s record was a disappointing 3-8 entering its final showdown in Champaign, Ill., the last game against in-state rival Illinois felt like an excellent opportunity to build momentum for 2022. Yet such results deviated far from the desired outcome: the shorthanded Wildcats were throttled 47-14, failing to cross the 20-point threshold as Illinois retook the “Hat.”
“We gotta get our edge back,” Fitzgerald said following the loss to Illinois. “We got to get our grit back and our toughness because that’s kind of been the hallmark of my time here.”
Northwestern will get the opportunity to prove itself early on as one of two teams opening the 2022 college football season. The ‘Cats will play Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic on August 27.
While NU’s top guide believes his team is better conditioned — mentally and physically — to rebound from a regrettable 2021, questions loom at starting quarterback, linebacker and free safety. Ultimately, the establishment of defensive continuity and stability from under center will dictate whether Northwestern returns to its 2020 glory or posts a losing campaign for the third time in four years