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Fresh off the heels of a heartbreaking, frustrating and infuriating 23-20 loss to Michigan State, Nebraska football has to once again pick itself up ahead of a game on Saturday that can only be described as a must-win. 

Saturday’s opponent, Northwestern, is a familiar opponent with plenty of unfamiliar faces. This is far, far from the Wildcat squad that won the Big Ten West in 2020. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald remains, but a majority of the players do not.

Of the 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams that played in 2020, the Wildcats ranked next-to-last in returning offensive and defensive production. As one would expect, that’s led to a mixed bag of results for Fitzgerald’s team.

The Wildcats started their season getting blitzed by Michigan State 38-21 before rallying in an uninspiring 24-6 triumph over Indiana State. On Sept. 18, the Wildcats lost 30-23 to Duke, a game the Blue Devils led 27-0 before Northwestern made wholesale changes, and most recently beat Ohio 35-6.

Northwestern’s 2-2 start has featured plenty of peaks and valleys, but the Wildcats have looked solid over their last six quarters of play and should provide a tricky test for Nebraska on Homecoming weekend. 

Here are Wildcat players to watch out for on Saturday: 

Ryan Hilinski, QB 

So, about that aforementioned loss to the Blue Devils.

Prior to and during the early portions of the game against Duke, senior quarterback Hunter Johnson, a transfer from Clemson, manned the Northwestern offense. Johnson performed well against Michigan State in the season-opener, displaying his immense arm talent en-route to completing 30-of-43 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns.

He cooled a bit against Football Championship Subdivision team Indiana State, completing 9-of-16 passes with one touchdown and one interception. Then, in the first half against Duke, the wheels fell completely off.

Johnson had four turnovers, three interceptions and one fumble through a quarter-and-a-half before Fitzgerald benched him. In stepped senior quarterback Andrew Marty, who nearly led an inspiring comeback before getting injured late in the game. 

Heading into last week’s game against Ohio, Fitzgerald listed three “co-starters” on the depth chart: Johnson, Marty and sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski. Hilinski, a South Carolina transfer, ultimately got the nod after Marty was declared inactive before kickoff.

Hilinski played what can best be described as inoffensively against Ohio, completing short and intermediate passes without turning the ball over. On the day, he completed 12-of-20 passes for 88 yards. 

He has an expansive pedigree at South Carolina, though, throwing for nearly 2,400 yards in 2019, including a 324-yard, two-touchdown performance against an Alabama team that finished the season ranked No. 8 in the country. Hilinski’s freshman campaign is all the more impressive considering, at the time, he was just the sixth true freshman in Gamecock history to start at quarterback since South Carolina joined the Southeastern Conference Football division.

Hilinski’s stellar freshman campaign in one of the hardest conferences in college football proves he’ll be up for the task on Saturday night, and Fitzgerald rewarded Hilinski’s solid performance against Ohio with the starting nod against the Huskers. How he fares in his first Big Ten road test will ultimately determine Northwestern’s fate.

Chris Bergin, LB

The Wildcats’ 39% returning defensive production heading into the 2021 season ranked No. 125 according to ESPN, but the defense did return a crucial cog in fifth-year senior linebacker Chris Bergin.

Bergin is the Wildcats’ leading tackler by a significant margin with 45 total tackles, 18 more than Northwestern’s second-leading tackler, senior linebacker Peter McIntyre. Thirty-three of Bergin’s 45 tackles are solo efforts, and he’s recorded 2.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble this season as well.

On top of that, Bergin has posted some impressive performances against Nebraska in his career. He’s averaging nine tackles per game in three prior contests against the Huskers, but his most impressive performance came in the Wildcats’ 21-13 victory over Nebraska last season. 

Not only did Bergin post 11 total tackles against Nebraska, but he also recorded two passes defended. To top it all off, he arguably made the play of the game in the fourth quarter.

With the Huskers trailing 21-13 halfway through the fourth quarter, then-freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey led Nebraska on a lengthy drive that ventured deep into Wildcat territory. Facing second-and-goal from the Northwestern 4-yard line, Bergin came away with a crucial interception that ultimately helped the Wildcats win the game. 

Look for the fourth-leading tackler in Division I to play a significant part of Saturday’s contest. 

Evan Hull, RB 

In a similar fashion to Illinois, Buffalo and Michigan State, Northwestern doesn’t boast gaudy talent at the skill positions. The Wildcats are centered around playing sound defense and running the ball.

Sophomore running back Evan Hull, the reigning Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week, leads the Wildcat offense with an impressive rushing showing through four games. Hull has 478 yards on 63 carries, good for an average of 7.6 yards per attempt and has four rushing scores on the year.

Hull earned recognition from the Big Ten for his dominant performance against Ohio last week, in which he ran for 216 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, including a 90-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. His performance marked the seventh-highest single-game rushing total by an FBS running back this season, according to the Big Ten’s release, and he’s currently No. 8 in the FBS in rushing yards and No. 14 in yards per carry. 

Nebraska’s defense successfully silenced Michigan State junior running back Kenneth Walker III, still the country’s leading rusher, last Saturday, holding the Wake Forest transfer to 61 rushing yards on 19 carries. The Huskers will need a similar defensive effort to limit Hull’s effectiveness and force Hilinski to win the game with his arm.

Brandon Joseph, S 

Northwestern sophomore safety Brandon Joseph might be the Wildcats’ most talented defensive player and is yet another returning Wildcat defender with a propensity for making big plays against Nebraska. 

Even that might be underselling the College Station, Texas native — Joseph is one of the best secondary defenders in college football. 

Following a 2020 season in which he recorded 46 tackles, had two passes defended and snagged six interceptions, Joseph received a host of accolades. He was an All-Big Ten First Team selection as well as a First-Team AP All-American. Prior to this season, Joseph was named to seemingly every defensive award’s preseason watch list and named to preseason first-team All-Big Ten and AP All-American teams.

Perhaps most impressively, Joseph made an insane interception off former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields in the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game, a game in which the Wildcats ultimately fell short. 

Joseph is off to a solid start this season as well. He’s Northwestern’s third-leading tackler with 26 tackles through four games, including a nine-tackle effort against Duke. He returned to his interception-snagging ways last week against Ohio, grabbing his first pick of the season. 

At any rate, Joseph’s ballhawking ability and overall elite play has to be taken into account on Saturday. Factor in that Joseph, too, had an interception in last season’s matchup with the Huskers, and Nebraska would be wise to scheme around him on Saturday.

If not, Joseph has the capability to flip the game with one play.

sports@dailynebraskan.com