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Even in defeat, Northwestern is showing signs of life under David Braun

To have even made this game anything other than a cakewalk for Penn State is telling.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Penn State at Northwestern Photo by Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Around 12:30 p.m. Saturday, a Google search result (likely) peaked: When’s the last time Northwestern football has beaten a top-10 opponent?

For nearly one-and-a-half hours on a sunny day from Evanston, Northwestern wasn’t just avoiding a total beatdown at the hands of No. 6 Penn State; in fact, the Wildcats were tied with one of the best teams in the country. The ‘Cats forced PSU’s first turnover in five games on the literal first play of the game; became the first opponent to lead Penn State in over 16 quarters of football; and had the Nittany Lion offense totally out of sorts.

As history wrote it, it wasn’t in the cards for NU to ultimately emerge with what would’ve been maybe the most improbable win in all of college football this year. Penn State outscored the Wildcats 31-3 in the second half, finding more offensive mojo while stifling the home offense for virtually 60 minutes.

While final 41-13 score seems to indicate that one of the best programs in the nation came into Ryan Field — where around 80% of fans donned its colors — and dominated a futile squad, that was anything but the case. Truthfully, the fact that Northwestern even had a chance in this game was remarkable, given how spotless the Nittany Lions had looked in every facet through a third of their season, not to mention the talent discrepancy between the two sides.

On Saturday afternoon, the ‘Cats mustered only 175 total yards, the fewest for the purple and white since taking on Michigan in October of 2015. PSU got home to Ben Bryant and Brendan Sullivan on nearly every snap, either flushing the quarterback from the pocket or bringing him down for a sack, which happened seven times. Point blank, almost nobody would think a team could emerge victorious based on that level of defense fortitude and offensive slog — and yet, Northwestern was well within striking distance.

The primary reason for the unexpected nature of Saturday’s clash was just how effectively Northwestern’s defense played against an offense that has scored 30+ points in every game. Again, the ultimate score indicates differently, but the Wildcats got good defensive line penetration, filled gaps from the linebacker spot and really never allowed Drew Allar & Co. to hum as usual. Star running backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen combined for 27 carries for 107 yards, and the Nittany Lions had just three plays over 20 yards — with one occurring in garbage time.

One could certainly attribute the tight contest due to Penn State’s offensive miscues, especially errant throws from Allar, who posted just 183 yards and completed under 55% of his passes. Unequivocally, though, how Northwestern played in this game comes back to its new head coach: David Braun.

Through five games, the fact that NU already has two wins, and a real chance to sit at .500 entering its bye, is more than almost anyone prognosticated. Under Braun’s leadership, the Wildcats have displayed stretches of legitimate defensive aptitude, the ability to hang around in games, an aggressive mindset and, maybe most critically, trust that Northwestern can compete with anyone — something which has been sorely lacking for the last two years.

“The expectation wasn’t just to make it a good game or protect stats,” Braun said postgame. “We were going to make decisions based on trying to find a way to win this football game.”

Admittedly, Braun made some questionable calls (maybe even for Chargers head coach Brandon Staley) which proved detrimental in his team’s chances to win. By going for it twice on fourth down from his own 31, it generated 10 rather easy points for Penn State — at which point the matchup was firmly in control of the visitors. While those two tide-turning plays dissipated a considerable portion of purple momentum, they’re calls from someone who’s playing with a tangible goal of winning and with nothing to lose. Ultimately, that translates beyond one afternoon, and reflects Braun’s attributes as a coach.

In many facets, Saturday’s outcome went as expected, with a lopsided final score and a bitter taste left in the mouths of Northwestern fans. The Wildcats created almost no pressure on Allar, were woeful on offense against one of the country’s most formidable defenses and couldn’t maintain the same level of intensity in the second half.

But, it’s hard to view a game against No. 6 Penn State in a vacuum. Instead, examining the results from a broader lens reveals a Northwestern team that’s embodied the attitude of a fearless first-year head coach, whose squad is undoubtedly trending upward — underscoring a unit making tangible progress, even when cutting its teeth against one of the marquee programs in America.