Ohio State travels to Evanston, Illinois this weekend to play the first of (what should be) two layups scheduled in November. No offense to Northwestern, but the spread is 30+ for a reason. And this is not 2020, when Pat Fitzgerald had one of college football’s best defenses and made a surprise run to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Instead, this year’s Wildcats own a 1-7 record, with losses to Southern Illinois and Miami (OH) during non-conference play. The NU program has struggled immensely since 2018, with 2020 seeming more and more like an aberration with each passing week. I expect their struggles to continue this week, for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the Northwestern offense.
For lack of a better, more eloquent term, it stinks. And I understand that this is not some new phenomenon. The Wildcats have never been a scoring juggernaut under Fitzgerald, which makes sense given his successful defensive background. Since 2014, they have regularly finished outside the top-100 in points per game... But it wasn’t always like this. Nor should it be viewed as acceptable. Not for a program which has benefitted from having hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into facility upgrades.
Affluent alumni base or not, I would assume that return on investment matters at some point — whether that be financial gain or simply enjoying the product. Not to mention the fact that Fitgzerald is currently the 14th-highest paid coach in CFB. You want three wins per year? I’ll give it a go for far less than $5.5 million, just give me a call.
Now that I have gone on my Fitzgerald tirade – I think he is a good coach by the way, but in the same vein as Kirk Ferentz (comfortable, low ceiling, already peaked) – it is time to start shifting our attention toward the players. Specifically those on the offense, which I so rudely called out. But there is talent on that side of the ball. More than they’ve had in recent years, if you ask me. It just comes down to whether or not offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian can figure out how to use said talent. Unfortunately, I would venture a guess than many (like myself) have serious doubts.
Because Northwestern is two and a half years into the Baja Experience, and points are still nowhere to be found. The Wildcats averaged 16.6 PPG in 2021 to finish 125th nationally. This season, they have improved to 17.9, “good” for 120th. All this after Bajakian’s predecessor was let go despite putting up 24+ PPG in three of his last four seasons.
Which leads me to ask: Where is the upgrade!? You recently had a five-star quarterback in Hunter Johnson, as well as Rashawn Slater and (now) Peter Skoronski, arguably the two best offensive lineman to ever come through your program. There is no reason to be this bad. Coaching is one thing. Gameplan and execution are another. It has all been bad for NU recently.
But one thing you will not hear from me is Evan Hull slander. The fourth-year running back is a bright bulb in an otherwise dark room, and often times carries the Wildcat offense on his back. He is a physical runner and skilled pass catcher, making him a threat on each and every down. One of the signs of a truly special player, is when they are able to make plays with the entire opposition focused on stopping them. Hull can do just that, earning him the title of this week’s Offensive Player to Watch.
Evan Hull was a 1,000-yard rusher for Northwestern last year, but I think we all reserved the right to mentally blot out anything to do with 2021 NW, so I'm re-learning about him now, and damn this guy is fun pic.twitter.com/YbO1c8jJZc— Alex Kirshner (@alex_kirshner) September 11, 2022
The 5-foot-11, 210-pounder hails from Maple Grove, Minnesota, where he was a stud wrestler and running back in high school. Ranked as the No. 6 overall recruit in MN, he chose Northwestern over a number of other schools, and saw the field as a true freshman for the ‘Cats. It took until late in the 2019 season (October), but Hull was eventually sprinkled into the gameplan as a depth piece at RB, before breaking out in a major way against Massachusetts.
After totaling eight carries for just 15 yards during his first two appearances, the freshman was thrown feet-first into the fire against UMass, and passed that test with flying colors. Hull racked up 240 (!) yards and four TD, on 24 carries, for an average of 9.2 YPC. He then settled back into a rotational role for NU’s last game of the season, but by that time, the tone had been set. This guy was likely going to be a workhorse in the not-so-distant future.
But Hull was not given the keys to the proverbial car in 2020. Instead, there was a five-way timeshare in the Wilcats’ backfield – six, if you include QB Peyton Ramsey – and the second-year back from Minnesota finished fourth among Northwestern RB with 25 carries. Despite his limited opportunities, Hull finished just 124 yards behind the team’s leading rusher, who finished the season with 81 carries. That was because Hull averaged 8.4 YPC, at least doubling the mark(s) of those ahead of him in the pecking order. You know what they say in Evanston: When you have an explosive RB, it is best to bury him on the depth chart.
Hull was finally handed the reins last season, and wouldn’t you know it, performed exceptionally for the Wildcats. He rushed for 1,009 yards (5.1 YPC) and reeled in 33 receptions (for 264 additional yards), finishing as the team’s leading rusher and third-leading receiver. In total, Hull accounted for 1,273 scrimmage yards and nine TD, at least tripling the total of every other skill player. He was a one-man offense, even with 11 defenders on the opposite side having him in their crosshairs. That is Darnell Autry or Justin Jackson-type stuff, referring to past Northwestern greats. And Hull has continued his strong play thus far in 2022.
Through eight games this season, the All-Big Ten candidate has accumulated 1,040 total yards — 579 rushing and 461 receiving. Hull’s yards per carry are down, but he has made up for the drop in efficiency by transforming into NU’s version of Christian McCaffery or Alvin Kamara. Meaning, he is not only the team’s bell cow RB, but also (arguably) its biggest receiving threat. In fact, he leads the Wildcats with 45 receptions and is only nine yards off the team lead for receiving yards. Hull also has three 100-yard rushing games and a 14-catch, 213-receiving yard performance in Week 2.
Despite Evan Hull’s borderline greatness, his team is likely staring down the barrel of a 1-8 record come Saturday. Their defense is not what it has been in years past, and the offense struggles to score points. And again, this is nothing new for Northwestern. Until they are able to achieve balance on that side of the ball, many of their games will resemble a copy-and-paste version of the previous one. But that should not minimize Hull’s achievements. He has the odds (more like the box) stacked against him on a weekly basis, yet all he does is produce. Keep your eyes on him this weekend, as he looks to run past the Buckeyes and up the NU career leaderboards.