It’s moved by fairly quickly, but we’ve officially reached the halfway point of Northwestern football’s 2023 campaign. Although just six games in, it’s safe to say the season has been nothing short of a rollercoaster. At three wins and three losses, the Wildcats can still see themselves contending for a top spot in the Big Ten West division, and maybe then a spot in the Big Ten Championship. NU (3-3, 1-2 B1G) trails just Wisconsin (4-1, 2-0) and Iowa (5-1, 2-1) in the West division. But, to have a real shot at reaching Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the third time in six years, there is plenty of work to be done.
Ben Bryant deserves to be QB1
It’s obvious that Northwestern’s offense isn’t unstoppable, but amid the offensive struggles, the spotlight has been placed on quarterback Ben Bryant, the sixth-year transfer from Cincinnati. Although the offense has struggled, the run game and offensive line protection pose bigger issues than the passing game. Northwestern’s backfield production is one of the worst in the Big Ten this season.
According to the Big Ten Network, the ‘Cats are averaging 103 yards per game (14th in the conference) and 3.1 yards per attempt (14th), despite having 198 rushing attempts this year (7th) — good for nearly 49% of their total offensive plays this season. Meanwhile, Bryant hasn’t been exceptional, but he’s been solid. Bryant is ninth in the Big Ten in passing yards, eight in passing touchdowns and seventh in completions. He may not be NU’s saving grace, but he should continue to get opportunities to prove himself as a starter.
“Interim Head Coach” David Braun is here to stay
After a treacherous period for Northwestern football this summer, where 17-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired amid the team’s hazing scandal, it looked like Northwestern might actually do worse than their 1-11 record in 2022. Nothing was expected of newly promoted head coach David Braun; in fact, practically every major sports news outlet, including Fox Sports, Athlon Sports, CBS Sports, 247 Sports and Bleacher Report, predicted Northwestern would finish at the bottom of its division. Few predicted the ‘Cats would even amass three wins. But after a strong start, his stay looks more than just temporary. The squad needed a culture change, and it seems like Braun’s given them one.
The Wildcats are nowhere near perfect talent-wise, but they definitely seem to be playing with heart under Braun, evidenced by their dominance over UTEP, impressive comeback versus Minnesota and the hard-fought game against a top-ten team in Penn State.
Bryce Kirtz is the X-Factor
The storyline for senior Bryce Kirtz is similar to the team’s: little was expected, but expectations have been thoroughly exceeded thus far. The wide receiver, who is in his fourth season at NU, hadn’t reached 20 catches or more than 212 yards in any of his first three seasons. With a crowded receiving room around him – including talented receivers like senior Cam Johnson, Michigan transfer AJ Henning and tight end Charlie Mangieri – a breakout season was unlikely. Nonetheless, Kirtz has been magnificent. He’s already broken his season-high in receptions (24), and he’s currently in the top five in the entire conference in receiving yards per game (65.4) and top 10 in total receiving yards (327) among all ball-catchers. At this pace, Kirtz could be Northwestern’s most valuable player by the season’s end.
Takeaways win games
While this phrase seems fairly obvious in football, it has proven extremely important to Northwestern’s games so far. In games where the Wildcat offense does not turn the ball over, they are 3-0; in the games that they have, 0-3. Even further, forcing turnovers has been of the utmost importance because the winner of the turnover battle has also been the winner of every Northwestern game this season, save for the overtime victory against Minnesota. Keeping care of the ball on offense and playing aggressively on defense seems like it will be the difference in whether or not NU plays a bowl game.
The season isn’t over!
Of course, being 6-0 is a little nicer than being 3-3. But, one of the biggest perks of having a .500 record is having a brand-new slate. Northwestern finds itself in a great position, all things considered. Earning its way into a bowl game, or even the Big Ten West, is not out of the realm of possibility – two things deemed all but impossible at the beginning of the season. The Wildcats face a difficult second-half slate, with tough matchups against formidable opponents like Maryland, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Northwestern might have to pull some magic to achieve the bowl status it desires, but anything can happen.